When The Big Book of Bay Area Film History is written one day, chapters will certainly be devoted to the groundbreaking experimental filmmakers of the postwar era, as well as to the delicious poison-pen letters Alfred Hitchcock shot and signed here. The Francis Ford Coppola-Saul Zaentz-George Lucas trinity will certainly get its due. But the longest chapter should go to the entity that’s had the widest and deepest influence on the local filmmaking scene: a nonprofit organization formed by 15 independent filmmakers in 1976 called Film Arts Foundation (FAF). FAF provided members with equipment, classes and a bimonthly magazine, and, for many years, hosted a film festival notable for showcasing the best of the region’s legion of documentary, experimental and fiction filmmakers. Most critically, early on the institution evolved into a mentor to makers. That legacy of support, advice and advocacy is front and center as the San Francisco Film Society (publisher of SF360.org) takes on several of Film Arts’ key functions, notably the fiscal sponsorship program, effective Aug. 19.
But don’t take our word for Film Arts Foundation’s importance. "In many ways, the Bay Area film community is a legacy of FAF," emails Sam Green (The Weather Underground). "It’s not entirely FAF’s doing, but I strongly believe that there wouldn’t be the rich and vibrant doc scene in S.F. if it weren’t for Film Arts. I know for me at least, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I really knew nothing about independent film when I wandered into the old FAF office on 9th St. in the mid-‘90s. I was making a kooky documentary, The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, but I had no idea what one would do with that kind of film. Through FAF, I connected to a whole filmmaking world. Over time, I began to see that making independent documentaries in the Bay Area would be something that one could do—one could even think of it as a career! I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories to mine."
FAF’s founders were artists and pioneers, but they couldn’t have anticipated that their modest endeavor would become so far-reaching. Film Arts sprouted in the mid-‘70s, when experimental filmmaker Scott Bartlett returned from a year in the Rust Belt, inspired by a start-up media arts organization called Pittsburgh Filmmakers. "We set up an organization to get a government grant to purchase a Steenbeck editing table," recalls attorney Richard Lee, "and then have members share the table so they could edit their films at a cheaper cost." The grant didn’t materialize, so Lee set about getting a tax exemption from the IRS for the fledgling band of outsiders. Once the goal of cooperatively owned equipment had been achieved, Film Arts Foundation languished, without an office, convening meetings in members’ flats. Then dues were lowered as part of a strategy to increase membership, and the organization began its ascent.
In 1979, Julene Bair stepped down as head of FAF to co-produce a film, and Gail Silva and Chris Dorr were hired as co-directors. Even then, Silva remembers, "It was all about the community. There was no money but there were some members. Our job was to gather things up and…strengthen the organization. So we started doing all kind of events; we started doing work-in-progress screenings. We had a membership meeting every year and created a whole thing around that [with] guest speakers."
The WIP screenings, attended only by filmmakers, had both practical and intangible benefits. Makers got direct feedback on what they needed to add or omit. At the same time, a lively discussion with differing opinions generally could be assured. Like other artists who work in isolation, filmmakers share the same issues and obstacles, and FAF members began to share solutions with each other. A real-world network developed, and filmmakers formed creative alliances to shoot and cut each other’s films. "It began to draw in novices," Silva notes, "people who didn’t have a lot of experience, who maybe were in film school, to not only get an education but to get internships to work on productions that were actually happening."
"FAF had a project file for active productions where the producers were seeking interns," attests Dan Geller, director and producer with Dayna Goldfine of Ballets Russes. "Young FAF members could flip through the file and find projects or responsibilities that suited their interests, and this interaction would lead to something great for the filmmakers and the interns, who were more often than not aspiring filmmakers. Even as peers of varying degrees of experience, we would look at each other’s cuts, not particularly at a FAF-organized event. It could be, but it didn’t have to be. Once these interactions started to develop at FAF-hosted events or practices or celebrations, the relationships and friendships could expand easily beyond FAF itself."
On a film set, there’s a hierarchy that’s carefully observed; in Hollywood, the power rankings set the etiquette and the tone. At Film Arts Foundation, the staff treated every member and every project with equal care and respect. That approach fostered a loyalty and unselfishness among members that was not generally found, say, in the media centers of New York and Los Angeles.
"Creating and cultivating a sense of community is a chief legacy for FAF," asserts Steven Ramirez, current president of Film Arts Foundation. "There are other organizations in the Bay Area, across the state, across the country, that provide certain services or information or expertise. But Film Arts is very unique in the way we’ve created community. By that, I mean people in their careers, after they no longer need the classes or the funding or the introductions or any of the services we provide, they still want to be part of this community that we’ve all created. It’s a genuine passion and concern for filmmakers. This has shaped everything that we do. That’s what has kept people connected to wanting to be part of this community."
For veterans and newbies alike, who were soliciting outside money to develop and complete their projects, a new need emerged in the early 1980s. A filmmaker could set up his or her own nonprofit corporation, but that was an onerous task. A framework was needed that facilitated fundraising yet also complied with IRS guidelines and met each foundation’s legal requirements. Richard Lee devised a fiscal sponsorship model under FAF’s auspices that fit the bill with the least bureaucratic impediment to the filmmaker. A milestone was achieved in 1981, when Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb became the first FAF-sponsored film to receive an Oscar nomination.
The departure of Chris Dorr, and the hiring of Julie Mackaman as co-director and development director in 1983, signaled another turning point in FAF’s evolution. "We saw that filmmakers were running into the wall over and over again of not having enough money to pursue their vision," Mackaman explains. "There was not a structure in place, particularly for experimental filmmakers, particularly for those in the highly speculative stages of making a film—research and development. We were trying to identify and target those kinds of projects where a small amount of money could really, really make a substantive difference."
Mackaman and Silva made the rounds of foundations, not all of whom were interested in electronic media at the time, advancing the position that individual filmmakers deserved the same support as sculptors and choreographers. "Unlike a fellowship program that was recognizing a body of work or the potential of particular artists, we wanted to make it a very specific program that would yield finished works," Mackaman declares with undimmed passion and zeal. "In the earliest rounds of the program, we had established, well-known artists competing for grants with newcomers. Our underlying purpose was advocacy, always advocacy, to demonstrate to funders who were reluctant to engage in any film funding because it was perceived as a prohibitively expensive art form. We wanted to demonstrate that even small grants, awarded strategically, could yield important new works and launch them into the world."
"Julie and Gail were always going out to foundations that didn’t fund media, or were on the fence, and making the argument," confirms Dayna Goldfine, co-director and co-producer of Ballets Russes. Beginning in 1984, FAF gave out almost $1.3 million in small grants to film and videomakers of every stripe over the next 25 years. In 2000, the Film Arts Fund for Independent Cinema awarded a record $129,000 in grants and services.
Silva and Mackaman didn’t just preach the gospel of social-action cinema to foundations, but to critics, audiences and, most crucially, the filmmakers themselves. "There are many things an organization could have done, and FAF could do and did do—library, equipment, classes," Mackaman says. "But the one thing FAF was singularly positioned to do was advocacy for the larger purpose of media, and reflecting back to largely isolated individual makers that they were part of a larger cultural force for change, where a Rock Ross is as important as a Les Blank, as a Trinh T. Minh-ha, as someone just signing up for his first film class at S.F. State."
To that end, Silva and Mackaman matched their external pitching note-for-note with detailed counsel to FAF members on their specific project. "That was when a young filmmaker could go in there and really blossom," Goldfine recalls. "I can still remember the first time Dan and I waked in with our first idea that became our Isadora Duncan documentary (Isadora Duncan: Movement From the Soul, 1989). We were in our mid-20s, and Gail and Julie helped whip our proposal into shape and advised us who we might want to hire as crew. They connected us with Ashley James who became our DP. Then Bob Hawk called and said he’d like to arrange a WIP screening for us. For me, the height of FAF was this proactive effort on the part of the staff to reach out to local filmmakers,"
Mackaman departed the organization in 1995 and Silva ceded the director’s chair in 2004, but the fiscal sponsorship program, and the art of mentoring a project, remained central to FAF’s mission. Michele Turnure-Salleo, a longtime member who joined the staff in 2005 and serves as fiscal sponsorship manager, will continue her duties as that essential service migrates to the San Francisco Film Society.
"In our program, which not all programs do, we offer consulting services to help the filmmaker get their applications and proposals in their best possible form and be a blueprint that they can use for any future fundraising efforts," Turnure-Salleo explains. "Plus we advise on distribution and fundraising and connect people in the community, so they can bring on other team members and provide introductions to other parties, including possible funders."
Turnure-Salleo and fiscal sponsorship coordinator Linda Tracey currently administer 253 projects, with more than 200 filmmakers applying to the program every year. The fee that FAF, and now the SFFS, takes for fiscal sponsorship is 7 percent general, 5 percent for projects over $100,000 and an additional 3 percent for credit card donations. The program isn’t merely a pass-through operation, however, but a systematic process of oversight and management, advice and guidance.
"Many foundations, particularly in the Bay Area, look at us as a vetting agency, in a way," Turnure-Salleo says. "We won’t approve until [a project is] at a point where it’s worth sending out to an institution." The comprehensiveness of the process has a side benefit, she notes. "That allows us to be advocates of and supporters of the film." Turnure-Salleo adds, "It’s fun for me because sometimes it feels like I’m mini-producing 250 films. ‘Cause that’s what a producer does, is try and get films funded."
From the standpoint of local filmmakers, SFFS’s adoption of Film Arts’ fiscal sponsorship program heads off a potential crisis. "It’s one aspect of Film Arts that has always been much needed by the filmmaking community, and even though the environment’s changed—the technology and the way people make films has changed—filmmakers still need and will continue to need this service," Turnure-Salleo asserts. "And to me, the Film Society’s a natural home for it. If we didn’t provide those services, I believe there would be a real hole."
For audiences around the country and around the world who’ve come to rely on Bay Area filmmakers’ diligent pursuit of social justice (without knowing it, in most cases), the circle will remain unbroken. As Turnure-Salleo points out, "We have all these seasoned or experienced filmmakers who’ve been Film Arts members for years, [but] there are so many new filmmakers every cycle who are eager to get started and they view the fiscal sponsorship program as the first step. That’s exciting, because it’s the new generation."
One way to assess Film Arts Foundation’s impact is by totaling up the enormous number of Bay Area films it shepherded in one way or another that played international film festivals, received national PBS broadcasts and garnered top prizes and awards. Another is to list all the filmmakers whose voices and visions were encouraged and honed. Gail Silva takes a good deal of pride in the first category, but greater satisfaction in the second.
"What FAF provided was a nurturing environment," she muses. "It was also a place where your day job might have been that you were driving a cab, but that wasn’t your persona once you walked through the front door: You were a filmmaker. I didn’t find out people’s day jobs for years. It didn’t matter. You didn’t have to be anybody but a filmmaker once you walked in."
The transfer of the fiscal sponsorship program and other key services to the SFFS is admittedly a major development in Film Arts Foundation’s history. After what promises to be a brief adjustment period, however, FAF members (and the Bay Area film community overall) can be expected to carry on apace. The SFFS’ combined commitment of staff, resources, organizational priority, and institutional gravitas bodes well not just for the continued maintenance of FAF’s most cherished programs but their enhancement and expansion. If so, that chapter in The Big Book of Bay Area Film History will require a lot more pages.
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