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I don't know a whole lot about made- in-San Francisco independent film. But I know what I like, and I love Monsturd, the story of a sewer-dwelling shit monster that's ultimately killed by flies. During the two years since the movie's release, I've put the cassette in the video recorder with the sound off during dinner parties, as a sort of passive parlor game.
"Monsturd sucks," notes my friend and regular dinner guest Ted. "But it's worth waiting for the part where the shit monster gets it on Ocean Beach."
Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that an aspiring San Francisco filmmaker and independent film producer, Greg Stephens, had put an initiative on November's ballot that would make it easier for cinéastes such as the men who made Monsturd to present their work to the public. The initiative, which Stephens calls "Save Our Theaters" and the election ballot will call Proposition L, would divert some $10.5 million a year of city tax money to a nonprofit entity, to be headed by Stephens, so he and a couple of his associates can buy up unused, old, single-screen movie theaters, then run them as venues for San Francisco independent films that otherwise wouldn't find viewers.
At first, this seemed like a smashing idea. You can't have too many screen-borne shit monsters, after all.
But the more I talked to Stephens, and the more I researched the reaction to my Monsturd screenings, the more I realized that it might not be beneficial to raid the public trough to give every S.F. filmmaking effort a public showing. At the very least, Stephens shouldn't be the one running such an operation.
For one thing, Stephens is, to put it mildly, an unknown quantity. And I'm still unclear on why, exactly, the cash-strapped city should cut other programs to give his formed-for-the-occasion organization $10.5 million a year. Perhaps just as troubling, Stephens would, if successful, create a San Francisco where government subsidies remove barriers to the screening of local independent films that currently have no hope of reaching viewers -- that's to say, the indie films that wallow in the mire below Monsturd.
"There are a lot of people with DV camcorders trying to make movies," warns Monsturd co-writer, co-director, co-star, and co-producer Rick Popko, whose movie inspired several budding amateur auteurs to send him unsolicited tapes of their work. "They're not trying very hard. Just because they have a camcorder and a bunch of friends who will act for free, they think they're moviemakers. But they're terrible."
Monsturd, the successful cream of this crop, it should be noted, is, as a film, a stinking pile of shit.
"Matt," explained my wife when interviewed for this article, "I never liked Monsturd."
"I'm a struggling filmmaker," Greg Stephens says by way of introduction when I call to ask him about his ballot initiative. The measure has been publicly denounced as a money-waster by the mayor, the entire Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Film Society, the owners of San Francisco's single-screen movie theaters, and the city's already established theater-saving group, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation.
San Francisco, which just slashed its way through a $352 million budget deficit, hardly needs to send $10.5 million per year to a group that was created purely as a receptacle for the money and "has no track record of running theaters or promoting the film industry," according to a ballot argument signed by the mayor and all city supervisors. There is no oversight on how the money will be spent, and "no government entity or agency can audit or review how 'Save Our Theaters' will use our funds," the ballot argument adds.
Yet Stephens presses forward. He says opponents haven't taken the time to study his proposal, which is all about freeing artists from the fetters of commerce.
"The issue is this: As an independent filmmaker, it's very hard to get in the business. The No. 1 obstacle facing independent filmmaking is exhibition and distribution. There's really a lack of exhibition space. What filmmakers really want, in terms of independent filmmakers, is a place to exhibit your work, get paid, get the buzz going, and get distribution."
"A lot of people would love to become artists, but they don't even attempt to do things, because they say, 'What's the point?'" Stephens continues. "On many levels, you hear the horror stories, you look into it. There's only a handful of people who have been able to stay independent and make a living, that have been able to stay free but also be able to survive."
To broaden access to this dream, Stephens -- who was described in a San Francisco Chronicle story as a former real estate developer, and who told me he's an inventor living on personal savings -- cooked up a ballot initiative that would divert a percentage of the hotel-occupancy tax to a theater-restoring organization that he, Stephens, would lead. The new organization would purchase and renovate old, empty theaters, show indie films in them, and, along the way, subsidize local filmmakers and encourage them to mentor disadvantaged youth and provide programs for seniors.