Film Society Awards Night

Brian Brooks/indieWIRE May 4, 2007

If the Bay Area was oozing self-regard last night, it couldn’t exactly be blamed. On one stage deep inside a red-carpeted Westin St. Francis, the 50-years-young San Francisco International Film Festival feted local heroes George Lucas and Robin Williams, along with imports Spike Lee and Peter Morgan. And on another stage, deep inside Oakland’s Oracle Arena, the region’s Golden State Warriors were making history with the first-ever upset of a number one seed by an eighth seed in a seven-game series. While Baron Davis was willing in baskets from past the three-point line with a strained hamstring, an all-star cast of presenters — John Lasseter, Ron Howard, Bonnie Hunt, and Jim Brown — were paying tribute to the sweat and tears of artists, highlighted perhaps when the best running back of all time compared Spike Lee with Nelson Mandela. Both, he said, had the human spirit to elevate their captors. Lucas, who received an innovation award to be given one time only in honor of SF Festival founder Irving M. Levin, was also a key figure in the canon of SF filmmakers recognized earlier in the week by Gary Leva’s documentary "Fog City Mavericks," cornerstone of the Festival’s "Cinema by the Bay" series. Its title came in handy as the evening came to a climax: SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat summed up the victories on both sides of the Bay by announcing, at ceremony’s close, with the Warriors double digits ahead, "The Fog City Mavericks are kicking the asses of the Dallas Mavericks." With that, the partygoers headed to Tosca and/or their favorite sports bars to celebrate. IndieWIRE’s Brian Brooks, in town from New York for the SF International, reports.

George Lucas, Robin Williams, and More Honored as SF Int’l Fest Celebrates 50 Years

By Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

[Editor’s note: This article was published simultaneously in indieWIRE, where more SFIFF50 coverage can be seen.]

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the San Francisco International Film Festival welcomed about 600 of the city’s well-heeled residents to the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square last night for the annual Film Society Awards night. Hollywood glitterati also made their way in for the big party, including Bay Area natives George Lucas and Robin Williams as well as director Spike Lee, recent Oscar-winning screenwriter Peter Morgan, and director Ron Howard. San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat greeted the crowd, taking the stage in the cavernous ballroom saying gleefully, "This is the longest running festival in the Americas…"

Schmoozing, cocktails, and invitees strutting flashy evening attire were the order of the night at the pre-dinner cocktail party inside, while the celebs made their way down the press line for photos and interviews. The San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Marching Band eventually led a parade into the adjoining ballroom for the dinner portion of the evening, followed by the honorary awards. First up was Pixar’s John Lasseter who introduced George Lucas, the recipient of SFIFF’s one-time only Irving M. Levin Award (named in honor of the film festival’s founder). "…he had these wacky crazy ideas of doing digital filmmaking," said Lasseter when introducing Lucas to the stage. "And think about it today. He changed filmmaking…and I was lucky enough to be fired from Walt Disney animation in 1983 and then got hired by Lucas’ company…"

"I am out of the mainstream and I can do things that aren’t too smart," Lucas said, stirring laughter. He wrapped up his quick stage appearance saying, "I’m proud to be from here and proud the San Francisco International Film Festival is the oldest in America."

A bit of levity punctuated the evening as speakers chimed in with the score of the NBA playoff game between the local Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks, which regularly wound up the crowd into a roar of cheers. Director Ron Howard gave a score update before introducing ‘The Queen’ writer Peter Morgan, who received the fest’s Kanbar Award for "excellence in screenwriting."

Heroics: "This is a great American, right here," honoree Spike Lee said of his presenter, Cleveland Browns running back, actor, and activist Jim Brown, who’d offered high praise for Lee’s body of work. (Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy SFFS)

"I hadn’t heard of Peter Morgan until [the fairly recent past] but I met him in the U.K. about a project I was working on, but he eventually passed on the project… Kind of makes you wonder what the hell I’m doing here…" Howard said to laughs. The pair are actually currently working on the drama "Frost/Nixon," which Morgan wrote as a play and is adapting into a screenplay. Howard, of course, will direct.

"I have no idea what sport you’re talking about," Morgan said with an accentuated stiff upper lip, referencing the basketball score updates. He then reflected on his award saying, "This is surreal. Thank you for honoring a writer at all … I’m thrilled, and it’s even not someone from the Bay Area. It was inconvenient for you to ask me, and it was inconvenient for me to come," he said to still more laughter.

Director Spike Lee was up next, taking the stage in a white tux with black trim to accept his Film Society Directing Award. He elicited audience cheers with another basketball game update, "the score is 90 – 67…" And then noticed some parallels between himself and the festival. "I turned 50 [on] March 20, [so I was born] when this great festival began. ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ premiered here in 1986, and I’m here now. So I feel like I’ve come full circle."

Graham Leggat reminisced that when Lee’s "She’s Gotta Have It" debuted at the SF fest in ’86, the city suffered a blackout just as the screening began, and Lee along with then executive director Peter Scarlet (now Tribeca Film Festival director) entertained the audience with an impromptu onstage Q&A by flashlight until the power was restored.

Before and after: John Lasseter had glowing praise for former boss George Lucas, who, he said, by hiring Ed Catmull and realizing the potential in digital imaging, "revolutionized film the world round." (Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy SFFS)

The gala evening climaxed last night with Robin Williams receiving the Peter J. Owens Award, which honors an actor whose work "exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity." Williams began his uproarious speech touting his Bay Area credentials, recalling his upbringing in tony Marin County (one of the nation’s wealthiest) just across the Golden Gate Bridge.

"When I got here 40 years ago [with my family], we lived in Marin, which is Spanish for "wealthy white people…" Williams said to bursts of laughter. He then praised San Francisco and credited the city for his eventual career choice. "This place is different … there’s a lot going on here. I found improvisation here…this city has a wild side, this city is an asylum … it’s a zoo … I can even walk around the streets of San Francisco and here … I’m normal. That’s what this place is about, creation. This place is always home, and it always will be…."

Leggat closed the evening saying the Film Society had raised the most ever at the evening’s fundraiser, which benefits film programs targeting 8-18 year-olds in the Bay Area.

But there was one final order of business for Leggat. The basketball score… "With one minute to go, it’s Warriors 111 and Dallas 86." The crowd cheered once again, and it was a good night for San Francisco. (Reprinted with permission, copyright Brian Brooks, indieWIRE 2007.)