'She is an original,' says festival exec director and filmmaker Peter Stein of Karen Larsen.

Essential SF: Karen Larsen

Michael Fox October 31, 2011

Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

To describe Essential SF awardee Karen Larsen as a publicist is akin to calling Albert Einstein a scientist, George Bernard Shaw a playwright and Julia Child a cook: It is both accurate and absurdly insufficient. For nearly four decades, Karen has been the Bay Area’s most steadfast evangelist of independent films, filmmakers and festivals, serving as painstaking press agent, tireless town crier, goodwill ambassador, de facto advisor, dedicated coach and tough-love mentor.

“Over the last 15 years,” Peter Stein recounts, “I've had the unique pleasure of working with Karen in at least three different capacities—as a filmmaker (she helped promote my PBS documentaries on the Castro and the Fillmore); as a festival director (she has been the longtime publicist for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, of which I was executive director for the last eight years); and as a film writer/journalist (to whom she has pitched story ideas). So I have been her client, pitcher and pitch-ee.

“Publicists in the movie business get a bad rap,” Stein continues, “and it's often deserved. They're usually promoting the flavor of the month, and you figure they either want something from you that's not deserved or they're trying to keep something from you at any cost. But Karen just has an ethos in her work that exudes old-school integrity, loyalty, generosity and an almost primal dedication to the principles of independent film culture. Championing Bay Area filmmakers, art house cinemas, and nonprofit festivals has been almost like a calling to her and her merry band of patient staffers, affectionately known as the Larsenettes.”

“For the entire 20 year history of the Film Arts Festival (R.I.P.),” says Gail Silva, longtime executive director of the fondly remembered Film Arts Foundation, “Karen Larsen was the fabulous press diva we relied on to get the word out about the eclectic films programmed from Bay Area independent filmmakers. Unlike other local festivals, she couldn't get press promoting ethnicity, genre or the names of the makers, as name recognition for indies is scant to the general public. Instead she had to 'niche' every program we came up with to some interest group or sensibility. We would have the most crazy, fun meetings with her once the films were locked—brainstorming cuckoo program titles, potential press release headlines and coming up with every obscure publication, 'zine, radio show, website and magazine around. She took it all in stride, plus she liked filmmakers.”

Lawrence Helman, who has been both a client (1993’s Sex Is... and 2006’s That Man: Peter Berlin) and, on and off for more than 20 years, a Larsenette, is even more effusive, if that’s possible. “Karen Larsen is truly the most wonderful person I have ever met in San Francisco, and worked for,” he declares. ”She is loyal, honest, dedicated, hardworking and able to make things magically happen with a phone call. I have never met a person who is so uniformly loved and respected as Karen.”

If you don’t know Karen Larsen, these compliments may seem over the top. For the hundreds of filmmakers, programmers, distributors and critics who do know her, it’s stating the obvious. Or as Karen herself would say with a laugh, beating a dead horse.

Karen formed Larsen Associates in the early 1970s, with the encouragement of the late art house pioneer Mel Novikoff, after a stint as talent coordinator on a high-profile KQED daytime show. A partial tally of Karen’s clients over the years—rest assured the complete list is housed in her memory bank—includes the San Francisco International Film Festival, Film Arts Festival, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Frameline, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, Berlin & Beyond, S.F. Indiefest and DocFest, San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: (aka 3rd i) and German Gems.

She also handles the lion’s share of independent dramas and documentaries released in the Bay Area every year, via distributors such as Sony Pictures Classics, Zeitgeist, First Run Features, Variance, Balcony, Shadow Releasing, Strand Releasing, Palm Pictures, Kino Lorber, Argot, Film Movement, IFC, International Film Circuit, New Yorker Films, Neoclassics, Outsider Pictures and Oscilloscope.

Karen has led classes and seminars on film publicity and promotion at Media Alliance, Film Arts Foundation, BAVC and the National Educational Media Network. She contributed the chapter on publicity to Morrie Warshawski’s The Next Step: Distributing Independent Films and Videos (Foundation for Independent Video & Film, Inc., 1995).

“Beyond (excellently) repping my film Sex Is…, I had the pleasure of being a Larsenette for a few years back in the ‘90s,” recalls impresario Marc Huestis. “God, did I learn stuff, and rather quickly. You've got to be on your toes with the whirlwind of activity that bursts through her doors. But what I value most is that Ms. Larsen is a combination of good friend, good person and goddamn fashion plate. Elegance is thine middle name. And I'm in awe of her work ethic, encyclopedic knowledge, and caring for films that some could care less about. Like the Energizer bunny, she keeps going and going.”

Huestis alludes to what I submit is Karen’s greatest accomplishment, educating and pushing the Chronicle and other mainstream outlets to cover the beat in the days before indie films had sex appeal and documentaries had commercial cachet. The only Bay Area directors deemed worthy of coverage at the time were Hollywood hit-makers Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Thanks to Karen’s indefatigable efforts, and high tolerance for rejection, you could fill this page with the names of local filmmakers who owe not just their press clippings but a chunk of their success to her.

“When I discussed terms [in 2006] with a distributor who wanted to take China Blue theatrically in the U.S.,” documentary maker Micha Peled recalls, “I said, ‘In San Francisco, you must hire Karen Larsen for the publicity.’ It was included in the contract, right below the P&A [prints and advertising] commitment. Someone called me last week about Bitter Seeds [which premiered last month at Telluride] and I said, ‘Of course, I insist on the Karen Larsen clause.’”

That’s a hell of a testimonial, but it doesn’t surprise me. This writer, for one, lost count years ago of the number of times Karen has cajoled me into covering a film, or interviewing a filmmaker, whose quality, timeliness or importance had escaped me. Instead of the wheedling (or shameless begging) that other publicists occasionally resort to, Karen typically adopts an acerbic tone that compels me to reflect uncomfortably on my chronic ignorance. Frankly, all it takes is for her to begin a sentence with “Don’t you remember….,” and I’m pretty much putty.

It’s reassuring to learn that I’m not the only one astonished by her powers of remembrance. “She has a memory for facts and details like a steel trap, and I have no idea why she uses a computer—she has all that info in her head,” Helman marvels. “When she starts to explain something about a job to me, she goes on and on about a fact that happened with the client 25 years ago and expects us all to remember. We’re usually dumbfounded at her sense of recall.”

This is a good spot—though I can hear Karen saying with bemused disapproval, “What did you wait so long for?”—to acknowledge her equally popular Larsenettes. Current stalwarts Leo Wong and Ani Klose uphold the legacy of good-humored service and discreet gossip whose forebears include Elizabeth Whipple, Harris Dew, Corey Eubanks, Lewis Tice, Tim Buckwalter, Tracey Bigelow, Corey Tong, Jane Pavis, Nancy Fishman, Chris Wiggum, Caroline Hanni, Kelda McKinney and the aforementioned Marc Huestis and Lawrence Helman.

“I started my film career as a volunteer assistant for Karen at SFIFF,” Peled reminisces. “The office then was in Laurel Village on California Street. My job was to photocopy press kits for the journalists. It was during those hours babysitting the copy machine that I made up my mind: One day some other schnook will be doing this to promote my film!”

“God knows Karen doesn't do her work for the financial rewards—in fact she's notoriously frugal,” Stein says. “One of her former employees used to joke (I think it was a joke) that she refused to waste a whole sheet of 30 mailing labels for one or two names. God help you if you were the 31st journalist on a mailing list. No press kit for you!”

“I answered the phone one day,” Helman relates, “and they asked for Karen. I said efficiently, ‘Please hold while I try to locate her’ (giving her a convenient opportunity not to speak with the caller if she desired). Karen immediately picked up the phone and said, ‘You know, we work in a one-room office.’ So much for my white lie.”

As a reflection of Karen’s central place in the Bay Area film community, it would be lovely if you added an anecdote, a cherished Larsenism or a shout-out in the Comments section. Until you do, Peter Stein will have the last word.

“She is an original, and shows no signs of tiring of her work even if indie films and the journalists who write about them are all becoming endangered species.”

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