SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Intl. Film Festival closed its 44th annual sked — and the 19-year tenure of artistic director Peter Scarlet last week — as Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom introduced his California Gold Rush saga “The Claim.”

With the screening came announcement of the fest’s juried and audience awards. For his pic “The Business of Strangers,” director Patrick Stettner won the $10,000 Skyy Prize for first feature from among a field of 11 contenders. The film’s star, Stockard Channing, earlier received this year’s Peter J. Owens Award saluting “an actor whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity.”

‘Heart’ pumps

Golden Gate Award Grand Prizes went to Canadian helmer Guy Maddin for his quasi-silent era mini-epic “The Heart of the World” (best short); Sundance preemer “Southern Comfort,” Kate Davis’ portrait of a rural Georgian female-to-male transsexual (documentary); Aditya Assarat’s Thailand-set family drama “Motorcycle” (Bay Area short); and “Promises,” a nonfiction look at seven Israeli and Palestinian children over a period of three years (Bay Area documentary).

“Promises” co-directors Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolando also accepted the audience nod for docu. Ticket buyers’ feature choice was a split decision between Cheryl Dunye’s prison drama “The Stranger Inside” and John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of his Off Broadway musical “Hedvig and the Angry Inch.”

Highlights during the 15-day event included in-person tribs to Clint Eastwood, experimental pioneer Kenneth Anger and exiled 1960s-70s Iranian cinema superstar Behrouz Vossoughi. Latter’s low-key local residence came to light last year when current leading Iran director Abbas Kiarostami passed his own Akira Kurosawa Award to the surprised veteran thesp in a spontaneous personal gesture of tribute.

Attendance up

Attendance was up 18% over last year to 80,893. Notable guests included award presenters Forest Whitaker and Peter Coyote; pic-promoting thesps Charlotte Rampling (“Under the Sand”), Omar Epps (“Brother”), Franka Potente (“The Princess and the Warrior”), Carla Gugino and Peter Sarsgaard (“The Center of the World”); plus helmers Wayne Wang (“Center”), Barbet Schroeder (“Our Lady of the Assassins”), Bela Tarr (“Werckmeister Harmonies”), Marleen Gorris (“The Luzhin Defense”) and Bruce Weber (“Chop Suey”).

While the successor to Scarlet (who leaves to become the first foreign-born chief of the Paris-based Cinematheque Francaise) hasn’t been named yet, recently appointed executive director Roxanne Messina Captor has indicated the San Francisco fest will seek closer ties down south in the near future — inviting more Hollywood product (and celebrities) to an event that hitherto often prided itself on having little use for, or to, the industry.