When executive director Graham Leggat announced last April that the San Francisco Film Society would open its year-round screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on June 13—a Friday by this year’s calendar—he added that for SFFS, at least, it would be an auspicious date. Even before the first film has spooled, you don’t need to be draped in garlic or packing rabbits’ feet to believe him. The Film Society (publisher of SF360.org) has reason to be optimistic about its new undertaking, which hopes to significantly contribute to the spectrum of art and specialty films now available at Bay Area theaters.
The San Francisco Film Society Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (or the SFFS Screen for short) will concentrate on theatrical premieres of the kind of work showcased in the Film Society’s cornerstone International Film Festival each spring—an assortment of international, independent and documentary films—but these films will generally be ones with limited distribution in the U.S. The idea is to complement rather than duplicate what is currently on offer in the Bay Area’s specialty and art house venues. SFFS’s first offering, Times and Winds, is an apt example, introducing Bay Area audiences to a new work from Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem that, while enthusiastically received by audiences and critics in New York, might not necessarily have found a screening locally.
Also in the initial lineup are two films that screened at the 51st International Film Festival in April—Eric Rohmer’s latest, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and Aditya Assarat’s Thai "ghost story," Wonderful Town. "There are some films that we’ll bring back, from our Festival or from other festivals," says Linda Blackaby, the Film Society’s director of programming. "In most cases a festival screening is not exhaustive of the potential audience for a film, and giving something a one-week run gives people an opportunity to think about going to see it—and better [screening] times." These first- and second-chance screenings also stand to boost the theatrical life expectancy of a given film through the added exposure attendant on an extra-festival premiere. "We can do more about that one film. It will be on our website; it will be linked up on Sundance’s website. Hopefully, one-week runs will get full reviews in various media outlets. It’s a way of calling more attention to worthy films and making them accessible again."
On one level, a calendar house program at the Sundance Kabuki is just the latest addition to a steadily expanding slate of projects filling out the year beyond the Film Society’s International Film Festival each spring. That slate (which since 2005 has tripled the number of days of annual off-Festival programming from about 40 to more than 125) includes the Film Society’s educational outreach to local schools, SF360 Film+Club events at Mezzanine and several shorter niche festivals. (To the 12-year-old festival of New Italian Cinema, SFFS added three years ago an animation fest, and will inaugurate two more festivals this fall: one devoted to contemporary French cinema and another week to Quebec film.)
At the same time, by offering a consistent outlet for nearly daily programming (minus some blackout dates), the SFFS Screen at Sundance Kabuki fulfills one of the Film Society’s most basic and longstanding goals. "The mature state for a film society is to have year-round programming," says Graham Leggat, by phone from the Film Society’s Presidio offices, "so at various times this organization has wanted to do it. When I came from New York [in 2005] having done nothing but year-round programming for 18 years, it seemed to me unthinkable that we weren’t. So it was an organizational imperative for me and for the board and the rest of the organization."
Nationally, film societies that can afford to do so have acquired their own theaters for year-round programming, and indeed this is the ultimate goal for SFFS. Graham Leggat’s former employer, the Film Society at Lincoln Center (operating the Walter Reade Theater) is the foremost example of such an arrangement, but just across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael, the California Film Institute (sponsors of the Mill Valley Film Festival) have been making a go of it since 1999 in the three-screen Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, a formerly "defunct ruin" that CFI acquired from the city of San Rafael and renovated.
"Running and programming the Rafael over nine years continues to be a learning experience," says the Film Center’s director of programming, Richard Peterson, "but it has assumed an essential role in CFI’s mission." Peterson notes that the benefits a year-round facility brings "in terms of serving your constituency and the public at large" also come with responsibilities. "A movie theater, especially one showing films out of the mainstream, needs constant attention, like a garden. I find we have to water our garden at least weekly," he says, adding, "We congratulate our friends at SFFS on their new journey [and] applaud them for the adventurous selections they have announced, since they appear to be offering films that otherwise would not have theatrical exposure in the Bay Area."
Although some film societies lacking a permanent venue of their own have sometimes partnered with commercial theaters and/or arts organizations to manage or approximate year-round programming (Denver Film Society’s relationship with the Starz FilmCenter being a prominent example), the SFFS Sundance Cinemas partnership remains somewhat unusual. "There are places where folks are, as it were, sharecropping," notes Leggat, "[but] of the major film societies that I’m acquainted with, which is most of them, this is the first time that I’m aware of that there’s been this kind of developed private-slash-non-profit arrangement." Gary Meyer, the cofounder of the Landmark Theatre chain (sold in 1996) and currently owner-operator-programmer of the two-screen Balboa who also works as consultant to art film exhibitors (in addition to being the co-director of the Telluride Film Festival), agrees the arrangement is unusual, if not "totally unique," given examples like Denver, and sees it as a win for a commercial theater like the Sundance Kabuki.
"I would imagine that from the Sundance Kabuki’s perspective, they’re trying to fill those screens and they’re looking for something that’s unique," says Meyer from his offices at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley. "I don’t know what their financial arrangement is, but if they can cover their costs and possibly sell more concessions then, at this point anyway, it’s probably a good thing because a lot of the little art films they’re playing aren’t doing a whole lot of business. The Film Festival focuses attention on the theater, on the films that it’s presenting most particularly. And the Sundance people would hope that people come to the theater to see Times and Winds or Woman on the Beach and are intrigued to come back and see something else that’s playing at the theater as well."
The Film Society’s particular year-round arrangement with Sundance Cinemas (already partnering with SFFS as the major venue for the International) came about serendipitously, according to Leggat. "[It was] just a case of an opportunity arising that fit this preexisting organizational imperative," he recalls. "When we were talking to Paul Richardson of Sundance Cinemas back in summer of ’07, not long after they acquired the [Kabuki] theater, he told us they were interested in doing a so-called calendar house." When Richardson mentioned that such programming was very different from what their bookers were used to, Leggat suggested SFFS program it instead. "Because that’s what we do. We’re not looking for first-run films; we’re looking for interesting international, independent and documentary films." Richardson embraced the idea. "He was looking for ways to collaborate and that seemed like the perfect relationship, where their audiences will be interested in what we do and our audiences will be interested in the rest of their programming."
"It just made perfect sense," agrees Nancy Gribler, vice president of marketing for Sundance Cinemas, whose business plan includes bringing quality independent film associated with the Sundance Film Festival to a broader public 365 days a year. "[The San Francisco Film Society programmers] have a fantastic view of a lot of programming that’s out there that they are bringing to us and our patrons, and we in turn are providing them with a consistent home for the presentation of those films."
Free from the responsibility of day-to-day theater operations—and free of the financial pressures of a for-profit venue—the Film Society can devote itself to the task of more or less daily calendar programming. "It’s a different process, for sure," notes Blackaby. "This is a theatrical enterprise. The Festival is more of a showcase. But, at the same time, it is still a curatorial [process]. We’re picking films that we think deserve a wider audience, good films that maybe a commercial theater might not take a risk on but because we know it and have a loyal membership we will show [them]. We’re trying to add to the kinds of choices available in San Francisco."
Under the new arrangement, SFFS can pursue this goal even at moments when the slate at Sundance Kabuki features more commercial fare like Iron Man, the new Indiana Jones film and Sex and the City rather than specialty cinema. "It’s not exactly what they or we thought they would be programming," admits Leggat. "Nonetheless, I think the same basic philosophies remain—that we have simpatico audiences and that this screen, which allows us to do year-round programming at essentially no financial risk (relatively little financial gain, but no financial risk), is ideal for us as a transitional phase before we open what we project to be our own three-screen film center in early 2011."
In this context, SFFS’s improvised partnership with Sundance Kabuki allows the Film Society to gradually build the experience necessary for its own independent operation. As it moves to open its own venue, the SFFS Screen at Sundance Kabuki offers an ideal testing and training ground. "For the time being (and this is why the relation with Sundance is valuable) it allows us to do with very little extra strain operationally," confirms Leggat, "because they run the entire theater operation. It adds extra work to all of our organization—especially to programming, marketing, publications, publicity, et cetera—but it’s not an untoward amount of additional labor. It’s more along the lines of getting a new set of muscles in shape."
Even with these advantages, SFFS’s new screen involves a gamble, of course. For his part, Meyer’s outlook on the Bay Area’s cinema landscape in general is decidedly mixed. As someone who follows the local box office, he sees many screens, many openings, and many failures each week. "It’s not just in San Francisco—it’s in a lot of places. But San Francisco is among the worst because so many films open here. I worry about it just because I see the grosses every week on all the films that open here and how bad most of them are. There’s not a lot of order."
Still, as Meyer himself is quick to point out, the Film Society’s track record, its expanding membership and its organizational infrastructure suggest it is far from blindly wandering into this wilderness—and he remains cautiously hopeful on the subject of the SFFS Screen. "I don’t think that anything that Graham and Linda and their team would do is going to be done without a considerable amount of thought and care about how they do it. So I have a very open mind about it, and I hope that they’re successful with it."
"I hope that we’re going to be adding to what’s available on a theatrical basis," concludes Linda Blackaby. "We’ll have to see. The ecology of Bay Area film—you look at what happened just today [with] Paramount-Vantage closing down. That sort of tendency, [which includes] New Line and Picture House dissolving, makes the kind of work we’re doing all the more important. Much as I love Sex and the City, there are other films to be seen," she avers, before a short spasm of laughter takes hold of her. "A guilty pleasure."
Robert Avila worked for the San Francisco Film Society’s publications department during the 2008 San Francisco International. He’s currently working as a freelance writer and critic.
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