S.F. fest gets energy infusion

Sked juggles some programming categories

SAN FRANCISCO — There was a perceptible lift in the air at last month’s kickoff press conference for the San Francisco Film Fest. The 49th edition of the densely programmed two-week program (April 20-May 4) is shepherded by producing org SF Film Society’s new exec director, Graham Leggat, former director of communications for the Film Society at Lincoln Center.

“Despite some mixed reviews in recent years, this festival has been extraordinary all along,” Leggat said.

Those “mixed reviews” were a reaction to falling attendance figures, unevenly received programming and, in particular, the directorship of Roxanne Messina Captor. The latter, abruptly dismissed after last year’s fest, made few friends in the community during a five-year tenure that followed longtime topliner Peter Scarlet’s departure (initially for the Cinematheque Francaise, then to head the Tribeca fest).

Leggat’s energy, accessibility and ambitious plans for the org have already provided a welcome contrast to that era. This year’s fest kicks off with Peter Chan’s Hong Kong musical “Perhaps Love” and ends with Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion”; it also features tributes to Ed Harris and Werner Herzog. Event shows some 200 films with attendance of about 80,000 festgoers a year.

Next year, the first and oldest film festival in the western hemisphere celebrates its 50th anniversary. Leggat notes, “We have a historical and moral obligation to knock everybody’s socks off next year.”

This year’s sked juggles some programming categories and widens the reach of what the exec director wants to be a truly citywide event via one-off screenings everywhere from neighborhood bars to a fire station.

On a more whimsical note, a photocollage called “Big Tilda,” featuring images of thesp Tilda Swinton (who delivers a State of the Cinema address April 29), will be projected nightly from the north and south faces of City Hall.

Fest recently kicked off some year-round efforts, some in tandem with other local film and arts nonprofits. Last month the Film Society and IndieWire launched SF360.org, a primarily Web site-based hub for Bay Area filmmakers and audiences to network and access news. The site will sponsor SF Movie Night to promote quarterly screening parties for indie and socially conscious works, in conjunction with DVD-of-the-month venture Ironweed Film Club.

Other fresh programs include new technology sidebar Kinotek (one of several means by which Leggat hopes to emphasize the Bay Area as “the country’s media frontier”), and co-presentation of three sneak preview features with national subscription series org Talk Cinema.

Planned for the near future are two new smaller-scale annual events that somehow previously escaped having their own Bay Area niche fests: One for international animation, another for youth media and a Festival of Festivals to reprise top titles from all the city’s myriad fests. Possible partnerships with theater chain owners Sundance (which just purchased primary fest venue the AMC Kabuki 8) and Landmark Cinemas are being explored. Last but not least, there’s the hope of constructing a year-round exhibition and multiple-use facility.

“You need a real war chest” to turn such ideas into reality, Leggat allows, and he’s upfront about making aggressive pursuit of new funding sources a priority. Don’t expect the venerable fest to start courting major studio premieres or courting the red-carpet swag set, though.

“This is not a major industry town, not a market town,” Leggat says. “I’m not looking to turn this into a media frenzy or a marketplace. It’s a sort of purist festival and also very much an audience festival, so it hasn’t had to bow to the kind of commercial pressures some festivals in bigger markets have had to. I want to just take advantage of a very smart, discriminating audience that has an appetite for independent and especially international films.”

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