San Francisco fest vision comes into focus

Lured from his Film Society of Lincoln Center post in late 2005, current San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat brought disparate experience as a programmer, marketer, planner and publisher for various New York City arts institutions to his new post.

The festival was approaching a major anniversary in less-than-peak condition: Attendance had slumped, and some felt the fest had drifted out of touch with its own community. With indefatigable energy and an ambitious roster of new and expanded programs, Leggat has turned things around in record time. Variety checked in with him on the eve of SFIFF’s 50th.

Fests have grown intensely competitive in snagging celebrities, premieres and marketplace status — the latter two especially areas where SFIFF lacks profile. Are they relevant to your vision of its future?

Not in an extravagant way. Of course it’s nice to have premieres. And a staple of any big-city fest is to have celebrity guests — it’s sort of the straw that stirs the drink. But we don’t put the festival together in terms of metrics for “X” number of premieres and stars attending. I think there’s been an overemphasis on premieres at festivals, on jockeying for distribution. It doesn’t make a jot of difference to us if a film premieres at Tribeca three days before it plays here. Does it make it any less good, any less interesting to our audience? No.

What then is SFIFF’s role?

Its primary obligation is to uphold a tradition of excellence and exploration. We naturally do this with an eye for what our audience is — what they’ll appreciate, what they’ll stretch to meet. The fest I last worked with in New York City only fills about one-eighth of the program with documentaries. In San Francisco it’s about one-third. That’s because the region is much more socially conscious. People are interested in new social formations and issues.

And in the global context of festivals?

We consider ourselves to be in the top echelon. Clearly we aren’t a “major-major” like Cannes, Sundance, Rotterdam or Pusan. But we are right behind them as one of the finest, most influential and historically respected big-city festivals. I would put us alongside San Sebastian, Miami, London, Edinburgh.

Does Hollywood and more populist fare have a place in SFIFF programming?

We’re not a two-part festival with challenging and mainstream as opposing sides of the scale. There are umpteen ingredients we’re putting in. Within each subset, there’s a question of balance — also of trying to stir things together in a nuanced, layered way.

So for instance at our celebrity-rich awards night (honoring George Lucas, Robin Williams and Spike Lee), we’ve asked Ron Howard to present scenarist Peter Morgan with his award because they’re working together on “Frost/Nixon” and Howard has a history with Lucas. That kind of mixture is fantastic.

I do have great fondness for international film and new filmmakers, so I’ve empowered our staff to be adventurous in those areas. This year we have a number of excellent films made or set in sub-Saharan Africa, and a fantastic New Media section. We felt we weren’t paying enough attention to emerging or mid-career actors, so Sam Rockwell and Rosario Dawson are receiving our first Midnight Awards.

When we get criticized, it’s usually because we show more films than the local audience thinks we should that are about to be distributed. They’re hungry to see things they can’t see elsewhere. They’re not so interested in sentimentality, nice costume dramas — even mainstream arthouse.

When you took the job, what did you perceive as the fest’s strengths and weaknesses?

It was without question a very well-structured festival in curatorial terms. I did find financial, public relations, interdepartmental issues that were stopping it from reaching full potential.

The organization has been going through a transition since (previous program director) Peter Scarlet left, from revolving around a single person to needing a broader, professionalized structure for the new competitive environment. I benefited from people slogging through those difficult years.

Your loftiest dreams for SFFS?

We’ve put a lot of stuff in place since I came here 18 months ago: A daily online magazine, a year-round education program, a DVD club, screenings at club Mezzanine, a television show.

What we don’t have yet is a permanent bricks-and-mortar home for calendar exhibition. We’re in discussion with a local partner and may be able to make an announcement during this year’s festival. We want something that has the same kind of orbit as Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive and the Rafael Film Center in Marin. If we do that, we’ll have a nice little circuit here in Northern California.

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