Serenity while the film wheels turn: A view down Lincoln Boulevard in San Francisco's Presidio district, which is home to the San Francisco Film Society, located on Mesa Street, up the narrow road on the left by the big tree.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com)

Presidio's Serenity Hides But Doesn't Obscure Vibrant Film Society
By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com

April 10, 2008


Most people are unaware that San Francisco is home to the longest running film festival in the Americas.  The festival's 51st edition kicks off on April 24 with the opening night film "The Last Mistress" from France's legendary provocateur Catherine Breillat, which stars the even-more daring and defiant Asia Argento, daughter of outre horror-meister Dario Argento (he was last seen in an American film during a mock trailer in between the "Grindhouse" double-bill of films.)

Perhaps fewer people in this town (outside the cineastes and all manner of avid film lovers) know that the San Francisco Film Society, a nonprofit arts and education organization which runs the Festival, is tucked away here in The Presidio, a prized corner of the northwestern section of the city just before the Golden Gate Bridge, one of America's most wondrous landmarks.  The Presidio, a U.S. government property that is now part of a national preservation monument, is probably the quietest part of this city of almost 800,000.  Yet the Film Society housed in one of the Presidio buildings, is anything but quiet.  The Film Society could well be the hardest working group in the film business in California outside of those Tinseltowners to the south, regarded as another planet to the likes of George Lucas and John Lassiter, two filmmakers who like being left alone to make their respective filmed entertainments (Mr. Lucas's LucasFilm Digital and Industrial Light and Magic operate in a building very close by, while Mr. Lassiter has a studio in nearby Emeryville that he calls home.  Both filmmakers appeared at last year's Fog City Mavericks event at the 50th Festival.) 

What will surely be the talk of the City By The Bay through the Festival's final night of May 8, is the closing film from Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Death and Life of Hunter S. Thompson", based on Mr. Thompson the journalist, writer and social-political commentator who committed suicide three years ago.  The film had its world premiere at Sundance last January and was warmly received by filmgoers. 

The Film Society itself is looking for greater recognition in San Francisco -- even more attention than it already has.  During the April 1 press conference to announce the more than 170 feature films, including 83 short films for this year's upcoming festival, Mr. Leggat signaled big plans and changes ahead for the Film Society, located on Mesa Street in this almost idyllic corner of San Francisco.  "The Festival will always be the jewel in the crown of the Film Society's offerings, but we intend to make the Society a full-fledged year-round organization," he said to a nearly-packed, palatial-sized room on the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square.  When Mr. Leggat, who was born in England, became the Film Society's executive director in October 2005 it was his long-term plan he said, to have films exhibited continuously.  In 2007 there were a total of 120 "outside of festival days", days where films were exhibited outside of the film festival itself.  Mr. Leggat, who frequently displayed a wry, but sharp sense of humor often punctuated by subtle and playful jabs at colleagues or films, proudly announced that on June 13, the San Francisco Film Society will have an exclusive big screen out of the six at the local Sundance Kabuki Cinema in the city's Fillmore District, where Film Society offerings would be shown on a year-round basis, with different programs, film retrospectives, and various classic cinema from around the world.

The San Francisco Film Society's membership has increased over Mr. Leggat's tenure, and the executive director cited a 66% increase, with a staff membership rising from 13 to 20.  Some 30,000 people outside the festival patronized Film Society events over the last year or so, with some 8,000 kids served annually by the variety of entertainment that the Film Society organized.  (Now over 100,000 people take advantage of the over 125 days of annual programming.)  The Film Society has also sought to improve its online connection to film patrons.  In an age where instant video and viral power is outstripping print and even cable news immediacy, the Film Society stepped forward with its own improvements.  Its website SF360.org, which is two years old, was re-launched earlier this year, with a revamped design and more comprehensive information about events, parties, lectures and of course, film.

Every organization has its missteps, and privately a few had grumbled during the 50th Festival about its opening night film "Golden Door", which was seen by some as an awkward fit for such a venerable festival.  Others had anonymously expressed displeasure at some of the film events, specifically the moderator Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, who questioned Spike Lee during a special night at the Castro Theater, saying that he didn't appear sufficiently prepared or asked questions that seemed very tame or even inadequate.  Despite these observations by some patrons, most appeared satisfied with last year's golden anniversary festival offerings, including the closing night film "La Vie En Rose", which went on to win two Oscars, including best actress for Marion Cotillard.  The 51st Festival line-up, which includes such films as "American Teen", a sensation at Sundance earlier this year, "I Served The King of England", from Sony Pictures Classics, "Redbelt", starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, "The Wackness", starring Ben Kingsley, and "Standard Operating Procedure", directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris about the Abu Ghraib tortures by American soldiers of Iraqi detainees, promises even more interest.

The Film Society obtained the magazine Vanity Fair as the Platinum Sponsor of this year's festival, and based upon the comments of the magazine's vice president and publisher Edward Menicheschi, the partnership between the Film Society and Vanity Fair is a win-win situation for both organizations.  In a recently-released statement Mr. Menicheschi commented: "The partnership with the San Francisco Film Society is an important opportunity for us.  Not only are we collaborating with one of the most renowned film organizations in the world during its showcase event, but we are able to bring our own charitable initiative, Vanity Fair Reel Relief, to life through the lens of the Festival to benefit the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC).  It's an alliance that is truly innovative and one that is sure to be a great success for both Vanity Fair and SFFS."

Tickets for the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival are on sale now.  For more information visit www.sffs.org, call 925-866-9559 or visit the Festival's Embarcadero Center Ticket Outlet located at One Embarcadero Center at the lobby level.

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