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When Irving "Bud" Levin launched the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957, he had the field to himself. Sure, Market Street was lined with movie palaces and every neighborhood had a theater, but if you had a hankering for something other than Hollywood fare, your choices were mighty slim. That initial festival not just the first in the country, but the first in the hemisphere changed all that.
For many years, the S.F. International attracted locals with sophisticated taste and Hollywood execs and stars eager to air-kiss European artists. When foreign films became popular in America in the '60s, distributors came to scout the festival for potential acquisitions. But with the growth of the Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival) in the '70s and the emergence of Sundance in the '80s, both magnets for North American and world premieres, S.F.'s bash lost its cachet as an industry event.
Meanwhile, festivals of every conceivable flavor were sprouting around the Bay Area. Niche showcases like the S.F. Asian-American and the S.F. LGBT grew into high-profile events that snagged some of S.F. International's spotlight. Then-artistic director Peter Scarlet forged a defiantly iconoclastic path, typified by a tribute to little-known Hungarian director Gyorgy Szomjas, that maintained the fest's local leadership role and confirmed its rep as the most adventurous urban festival in the U.S. A modest achievement, some might say, yet one that perfectly suited the Bay Area's discerning cinemaphiles. But there were those who longed for the spring shindig once again to be an industry player, and a mecca for Hollywood megastars.
The latter goal was partially achieved during the short, painful tenure of executive director Roxanne Messina Captor, but at a cost of lost ground in the battle to remain relevant to new generations of moviegoers. In his second year, successor Graham Leggat has regained that momentum with initiatives like SF360 San Francisco Movie Night and a commitment to new technologies. He's played down any notions of competition since he took over and has consistently maintained that the abundance of local fests effectively expands the overall audience.
"The way in which festivals have proliferated has resulted in a de facto network of distribution," Leggat says. "Even though there aren't the giants of cinema that everyone can agree on, with DVD, online, and a network of festivals, people are seeing a great number of international films, even if it's not necessarily at the local theaters."
Leggat is bound to put a happy face on what is widely acknowledged as flat foreign film attendance. Although the new modes of distribution he cites are terrific for those inspired to seek out new titles from abroad or immerse themselves in a director's oeuvre, the challenge is reaching younger audiences hooked on Hollywood and YouTube.
His optimism about San Franciscans' appetite for world cinema is best reflected in the SFIFF's least commercial program strand, the longstanding SKYY Prize competition, which also has a built-in appeal for twentysomethings. Eleven debut features from Egypt (The Yacoubian Building), South Africa (Bunny Chow), Afghanistan (Zolykha's Secret), and other distant points, by young filmmakers with approximately zero name recognition in the U.S., wouldn't be a marketing hook in most places. But the commitment to showing the work of unknowns is endorsed by lines of adventurous festival goers keen to discover new talent.
Programming aside, the greatest issue facing the organization, and the one that Leggat has addressed most aggressively, is the effect of the Internet on moviemaking and movie watching. For last year's hoedown, Leggat and his programmers dreamed up the KinoTek spotlight on new modes and platforms. This year, an experimental feature shot on a cellphone (Why Didn't Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan?) will be a hot ticket, as will "Special Forces," Canadian animator Pierre Hébert and S.F. new-music visionary Bob Ostertag's performance of their brand-new Living Cinema piece.
Other forays into the future include a venture with Jaman.com to make six to 10 features available to a select number of people for one-time download after their fest screenings. Such initiatives, along with the tectonic shift to digital movies and the inevitable arrival of interactive cinema, speak to a changing relationship between filmmakers and audiences.
"Some of these new technologies could eventually be in many kinds of theatrical venues, but the festivals are the ones who initiate and experiment with it," says Gary Meyer, the local exhibition veteran who operates the Balboa Theatre and heads the Telluride Film Festival. "And us being in the Bay Area, the center of technology, [we] should be exploring those things."
The debut KinoTek featured more flash than substance, but this year's edition is an upgrade. "When we introduced a few things last year, some of it was a form of showmanship and some it was novel," Leggat allows. "But we're not interested nor were we interested last year just for the sake of doing it. We're trying to be solid all the way down the line."
Back in 1957, the nascent technologies that had Hollywood execs atwitter were television and CinemaScope. TV was viewed as a mortal threat to moviegoing, and the larger-than-life wide-screen format was the often-gimmicky response. Replace TV with the Internet and CinemaScope with CGI, and you're forgiven for thinking nothing's changed in half a century.