SF Film Society enjoying new prestige

The San Francisco Film Society, parent of the globally prominent San Francisco International Film Festival, has made a transformation worthy of an adventure movie.

For five decades, the festival garnered attention, but now the society itself is exploding with year-round activities and projects.

The festival, started by Irving Levin in 1957, is probably the country’s oldest and one of the world’s biggest such festivals. The two-week festivals in April were always visible to the public, while the Film Society itself, created in the 1970s, remained in the background, providing administration and financing.

About a decade ago, the society expanded with additional projects related to the festival. In 2005, Graham Leggat arrived as the new executive director, starting what he calls a “transformation” and having “the most extraordinary five years of my life.”

The five years, though brief, were difficult. But future growth looks significant. Since 2005, the operating budget tripled from $2 million to $6 million. Instead of 11 full-time employees, the staff now numbers 33. All this during the Great Recession.

“The festival is still the jewel in the crown,” Leggat says, “but instead of hiding our light under the bushel for the rest of the year, we are creating a much bigger organization for a city with appetite for a year-round film culture.”

Leggat can quantify that appetite for film: The Bay Area is the No. 3 movie market in the country; No. 2 for the “specialty market” (independent, art house and documentary film). After Los Angeles, it has second-largest Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, plus it has, Leggat says, “sophisticated audiences, which embrace filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar ahead of other cities, however big.”

From small, if enthusiastic, audiences in little single-screen theaters decades ago, the festival is now getting more than 80,000 patrons, and the society’s year-around activities add thousands of both viewing and participating film fans.

Leggat has a 10-year plan, which includes a new headquarters, “built from scratch, for a full flower of activities, with screens, editing rooms and so on.” The society offices are now in a Presidio rental.

Programming director Rachel Rosen, Leggat’s No. 2, explains the current state of expansion in three categories:
– Year-round screenings of mini-festivals and individual events
– Significantly stepped up film education in schools
– Filmmaker services, including activities taken over from the Film Arts Foundation two years ago. “It’s been hard work,” Leggat says, “but the organization is ready for transformation. There is a deep reservoir of goodwill in the community, and we have a board second to none, underwriting our growth.”

About 40 percent of the budget comes from earned income — tickets, benefits, tuition — and 60 percent from contributions.
A major obstacle, Leggat admits, is the recession, which is striking even worse than last year because of its cumulative effect.

Corporate sponsorship declined about 50 percent over the past two years, as shrunken foundation endowments reduced their giving, but at the same time, Leggat says, there is “less anxiety” as people get conditioned to new realities.

Society has its eye on Clay Theatre

The century-old Clay Theatre would make an ideal venue for some of the San Francisco Film Society’s activities. Whether that will be is unknown.

The Clay, at 2261 Fillmore St., was built in 1910 as a nickelodeon house, and it became a foreign film theater in 1935.

Since 1991, it’s been rented by Landmark Theaters, which remodeled, added digital sound and new seats. The Clay was set by its landlord to close this summer, but there was a last-minute, temporary rental extension.

Graham Leggat, the Film Society’s executive director, wants the society to own or at least rent the theater for year-around use.
The owner, Woodside resident Balgobind Jaiswal, has not said publicly what his plans are and could not be reached for

Leggat is a formidable presence — dynamic, always engaged — which comes handy in his efforts to acquire the Clay. He not only wants to secure the Clay for his organization, he is also fighting against “the death of single-screen theaters in
San Francisco.”

He is critical of one rumored plan to expand the building and split the theater in three.

“It’s already a narrow bowling alley,” he says. “What would it be like as three units?”

His own plan for the theater, if an agreement can be reached with the building owner, is to expand the uncomfortably small lobby, “create some decent [restroom] facilities” and take out a few of the front rows right under the screen.

London-born Leggat, 50, has lived in the U.S. since 1979. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, and with a master’s from Syracuse University. He held executive positions with the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was publisher of Film Comment magazine and was contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine.

What to take in during the fall season

‘Taiwan Film Days’
Where: Viz Cinema, 1746 Post St., S.F.
When: Oct. 22–24
Tickets: $10-20
Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org

‘French Cinema Now’
Where: Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema, One Embarcadero Center, S.F.
When: Oct. 28-Nov. 3
Tickets: $10-$30
Contact: 925-866-9559, www.sffs.org

‘Cinema by the Bay’
Where: Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.
When: Nov. 5-8
Tickets: $10-$20
Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org

‘Sneak Preview: Nice Guy Johnny’
Where: Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4
Tickets $10-$12.50
Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org

‘Roman Polanski: Short Films with Live Music by Sza/Za’
Where: Letterman Digital Arts Center, The Presidio, S.F.
When: Nov. 10
Tickets: $12-$15
Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org

‘New Italian Cinema’
Where: Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema, One Embarcadero Center, S.F.
When: Nov. 14-21
Tickets: $10-30
Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org

‘SF International Animation Film Festival’

Where: Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema, One Embarcadero Center, S.F.
When: Nov. 11-14
Tickets: $10-$20
Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org

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