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The sandwiches at Miller's East Coast West Delicatessen on Polk are perfectly tasty, but nearly an hour has passed and Graham Leggat has barely taken three bites. The new executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which puts on the S.F. International Film Festival, has focused instead on spinning out a slate of ideas for raising his organization's profile. I wouldn't call our conversation one-sided, but my plate's been empty a while.
When Leggat arrived last fall from New York, where he was director of communications at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the local film community greeted him with cautious optimism. His predecessor, Roxanne Messina Captor, had alienated festival-goers by pushing out popular staffers, meddling in the programming, butchering directors' names at screenings, and hiking ticket prices. By the end of her four-and-a-half-year tenure, the SFIFF had lost momentum and distinctiveness, crucial facets in an area where top-notch festivals and series are a monthly occurrence.
"It's a much more competitive, much more industrialized environment," Leggat said on the phone last week, some four months after our initial meeting. "You need to have a lot more skin in the game, financially. And, of course, the traditional notion of filmgoing itself, which changed first with television and then with the VCR, and then the DVD and the Internet, has never been more volatile and mercurial. You find yourself having to compete very vigorously for films. ... It's a much more complicated and fluid world than it was even 10 years ago."
At the SFIFF press conference last month, some journalists were ruffled by Leggat's use of marketing-speak. They also grumbled that he hogged the spotlight away from Director of Programming Linda Blackaby and needlessly flaunted his film knowledge. With respect to the first charge, Leggat bristles at being pigeonholed as a marketing guy, noting that he programmed the New York Video Festival for 10 years and wrote for the New York Daily News, Filmmakermagazine, and other publications. As for any elitist tendencies, let's not forget former longtime SFIFF Artistic Director Peter Scarlet, whose apparent belief that he had the most discerning taste in the galaxy was a continual source of affectionate jokes.
What prompts this kvetching? Leggat is both exceedingly self-confident and extremely voluble, and that combo may fly better in midtown Manhattan than it does here. San Franciscans are suspicious of high achievers, glib talkers (cf: Willie Brown), and, especially, New Yorkers. We're more comfortable with fake humility and real insecurity, neither of which is a Leggat strong suit.
From the day he got here, Leggat moved at warp speed to repair relationships and generate enthusiasm. He's been spotted at all kinds of below-the-radar events at small venues that previous executive directors wouldn't have attended. And it's not as if the Bay Area is foreign territory: Leggat got his B.A. at Stanford and lived for a while at both the San Francisco Zen Center and its Tassajara outpost. As for the local film scene, he has a clear and painful memory of taking his infant daughter to a movie at the Opera Plaza and having a patron tell him after the show that he was too young to have a child.
Leggat's efforts to enlist allies have been well received, which is key to his strategy for raising film's profile and status in the city's cultural life. The first monthly SF360 San Francisco Movie Night, with hundreds of cells in private homes watching the same movie on DVD simultaneously, took place this past Monday. Legatt is also spearheading festivals that focus on animation and work created by young students targeting niches that Sundance and other competitors haven't yet approached as well as a weekend event later this year that would bring several major local fests together under one roof for the first time.
"We don't imagine that we're doing something contrived," Leggat says. "There's no question that film is a vanguard art. It's only natural that a progressive-minded organization working a vanguard art in a city of innovators ... it's practically inevitable that film should occupy a central position."
Leggat's tactic, although it's too ambitious and absurd for him to acknowledge, may well be to move the arthouse to the mainstream in San Francisco. He struck a deal with Indiewire to launch a Web site dedicated to coverage of the entire Bay Area film scene, not just the SFIFF. (Disclosure: I am a contributor to the site, www.sf360.org.) Although he says it's too soon to talk with the Kabuki's new owner, Sundance Cinemas, about the SFFS programming a screen or two year-round, Leggat's the kind of guy who's probably stayed up until 3 a.m. working on a proposal. Finally, the festival itself has branched out to unexpected (and welcome) venues the Edinburgh Castle, El Rio, the Swedish American Hall, the Bar of Contemporary Art (BOCA), and Intersection for the Arts.
As far as Bay Area movie-goers are concerned, the SFIFF is 80 percent of Leggat's grade. When I suggest that his orientation may be toward New York as opposed to his predecessor's infatuation with Hollywood, Leggat calmly avers. "I would hope that I look all the way around, with a panoramic view to all parts of the industry, but with a particular view to world cinema," he says. You might call that answer marketing-savvy or simply politic, and certainly Leggat's imprint won't be fully felt until the 50th festival next year. Whatever he does, though, it will be worth watching.