Up until about a year ago, the prolific independent film producer and advocate Ted Hope thought he'd live the rest of his life in New York, continuing to produce feature films. Hope's productions (which include Simple Men, Eat Drink Man Woman, Walking and Talking, and Happiness) not only helped establish the careers of filmmakers like Hal Hartley, Ang Lee, Nicole Holofcener, and Todd Solondz, but were a major part of the great wave of independent filmmaking that characterized the cinema of the 1990s. Film buffs and industry observers were surprised by Hope's relocation to San Francisco late last summer, when he was hired by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) as its executive director. But for Hope, the move was a natural one, given his conviction that San Francisco and the Bay Area is poised to play a crucial role in shaping the future of the cinematic arts.
In the spring of 2012, Hope was on a road trip up the California coast with his son. A call came through just north of Big Sur from one of the SFFS's board members, asking Hope to speak with the board about what he would do "with a film society to make it applicable to the world we're living in today." Hope remembers being unsurprised by the request itself, since he regularly consults with film organizations on those very kinds of questions. The coincidence of his proximity at that moment to San Francisco made it a natural next stop on his route.
"I already had 45 things I would do if I happened to have a chance to rebuild infrastructure. So I just turned the key and spit them all out," Hope recalls. "Three days later I was back in New York, and my phone rang. It was one of our board members, and she said, 'Ted, we think you didn't actually understand what that meeting was about. We'd like you to do all of those things. We'd like you to come out to San Francisco.'"
What Hope found when he arrived was an organization that had grown significantly over the last 10 years, having matured from having the oldest film festival in the Americas into a year-round organization that offers not only film programming but education and filmmaker-support opportunities. But with the death in 2011 of former director Graham Leggat, who had overseen much of that organizational expansion, as well as his successor, Bingham Ray, in January 2012, the shift that the organization had sought to implement hadn't been fully realized.
Upon his arrival last September, Hope says, the SFFS was "poised to have a transformative effect on culture. For the second year in a row, a film that the Film Society, through the help of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation supported, won the Grand Prize at Sundance. Whether it's The Beasts of the Southern Wild [in 2012] or Fruitvale this year, I think there's no argument that these films wouldn't have been made without the support of nonprofit institutions."
The role of such institutions in film financing is going to grow, he thinks.
"Of my initial 15 films," he recalls, "probably 80 percent of them had involvement from American Playhouse. American Playhouse was run by PBS, and partially funded by the NEA. Where are the American Playhouses of today? The fact is that they don't exist. I wouldn't have come out to San Francisco if the Film Society wasn't a diversified institution that had film funding as one of its three or four core legs."
He holds up Beasts and Fruitvale as two recent examples of imaginative, socially relevant films that engaged audiences and made money. That they did so on modest budgets, and were "launched outside of normal market considerations," mark them as harbingers of a growing trend. Just as comedians and musicians are increasingly taking control over the production and distribution of albums and video content, so filmmakers may be looking at a future in which a traditional theatrical release is not the only or best way to grow an audience or make a profit.
"Culture-wise, the digital transformation has been an incredible paradigm-shift," Hope says. "I don't think that could be properly addressed except in an area like the Bay Area, which is dedicated to innovation and a commitment to the greatest diversity of expression in all attitudes. I think in San Francisco, we have the potential to be a launch-pad for artists, audiences, and the industry."
Hope says that this vision, already established by the Film Society, is what he plans to expand. This includes additional filmmaker support, and eventually, construction of a "physical plant" available to Bay Area filmmakers. (A potential production facility in the Presidio has been in the wind for a few years now, though no definite plan has yet materialized.)
For now, Hope is focused on the upcoming 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (April 25-May 9), which has as diverse a lineup as ever — including films from around the world, and major events with filmmakers Philip Kaufman, William Friedkin, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderbergh.
"The San Francisco Film Society always had a local focus, but now you see a national impact," Hope says. "It positions us for another stage — I think you'll start to see us the Bay Area film community taking the baton that the early wave of the 'Fog City mavericks' had and running with it in a full-fledged sprint."