Partners in film: Jennifer Rainin, founder of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, joins SFFS executive director Graham Leggat for a reception at the Sundance Film Festival this past January.

Social Justice Filmmaking Grants Announced

Susan Gerhard January 28, 2009

A series of annual grants totaling $3 million for narrative feature films being made in the San Francisco Bay Area will be distributed over the next five years by the San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the Film Society announced today.

The grants run from 2009-13, and will be awarded in the spring and fall of each year. In 2009 there will be two $35,000 grants, and the amounts awarded will increase dramatically in the following years, to $1,050,000 by 2013.

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who funded his first San Francisco-made feature, Medicine for Melancholy for what he terms "the cost of a car," said, "This is definitely going to be a boon to us indie filmmakers. I think you’ll see more people making films like Medicine if they can find a way to not have to work 10 hours a day and try to find three more hours in the day to work on their movies." (Jenkins’ film played SFIFF 51 and opens in Bay Area theaters in late February.)

The funded films will explore urgent social justice issues, such as human and civil rights, antidiscrimination, gender and sexual identity through plot point, theme, subtext, character or setting.

"To clarify this, lest someone get the wrong idea," said Graham Leggat, San Francisco Film Society’s executive director, "We’re not funding didactic agit-prop. As always, we’re interested in good films. Specifically, in the context of this initiative, we’re interested in good films that do some good in the world. That’s what we mean by social justice filmmaking."

Jennifer Rainin, KRF founder, explained the foundation is excited not just about offering money to cash-strapped artists, but also helping artists with tangible services as they develop their careers in San Francisco. "We want to effect social change," explained Rainin. "One of the lovely things about film is that it is, by definition, a community project. As one member of the community grows, it touches everybody who’s involved with the project."

The San Francisco Film Society, said Rainin, is well-positioned to provide support in any areas of weakness a filmmaker might have, "to help up-and-coming artists to grow their careers."

"My ultimate hope is that with these grants and other like efforts, that the Film Society can help build a strong filmmaking middleclass in San Francisco," commented Leggat. "In the meantime, we want to do our utmost to support as many good filmmaking projects in the Bay Area as we possibly can."

It adds a new dimension to the film-funding landscape in SF. Barry Jenkins noted that "documentary filmmakers are holding their end in the Bay Area; they always have. Now it’s time for us narrative folks to step up."

San Francisco Film Commission’s executive director, Stefanie Coyote, said she couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the initiative. "It’s an extremely positive addition to the local film industry. Particularly for social justice narrative filmmakers, this is an extraordinary opportunity. The Film Commission looks forward to facilitating these projects."

The San Francisco Film Society launched its Filmmaker Services programs in August of last year, and, according to Leggat, the idea was to honor the Film Arts Foundation’s traditions and strengthen the mandate. "With this extraordinary new addition to our grants and resources program," he said, "it’s more than anyone could have imagined at the time. And it’s a fantastic leap forward for grant-making for film in the Bay Area."

The cash support is important, of course, but it’s not the only feature of the new initiative for feature narrative filmmakers. "The Film Society will be contributing professional development classes, fiscal sponsorship, industry contacts, works-in-progress screenings, exhibition opportunities and other programmatic resources to the recipients of the grants such that investment is as much in the filmmaker over time as it is in the individual project that receives the funding," explained Leggat.

The Film Society now provides programs and services to filmmakers and audiences across a wide spectrum. As Leggat put it, "Someone may enter the Film Society through a very specific door, but once they enter, they find themselves surrounded by a whole array of programs, activities and events. And that’s wonderful for the member or the filmmaker, even the sponsor. It’s also healthy businesswise for the Film Society. It’s speaks to great sustainability on the organization side."

The Kenneth Rainin Foundation is a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by working in a number of areas, including literacy, health and arts. Its funding of filmmakers through the San Francisco Film Society, said Jennifer Rainin, is intended to be a long-term project, with the first five years offering time to develop a sense of where the grants might go in the future. "We may end up coming up with some other types of grants to expand the programs we’ve begun," said Rainin. "I see this first five years as just phase one."

Total annual grant amounts per year after 2009 are projected to be $450,000 for 2010, $675,000 for 2011 and $864,000 for 2011 and $1,050,000 for 2013. Individual grants amounts and the number of grants made each year after 2009 will be determined on an annual basis.

Feature filmmakers in the Bay Area have often been swayed to Los Angeles by financial concerns. "I have to figure out a way to support myself. I have another life in LA," said Jenkins. "Ideally, would like to live and work here."

The new narrative initiative may offer filmmakers a chance to consider spending more time working where they want to live. "With new technology on the production end— the HVX, the RED camera, etc., you can get a very amazing image at a very good cost," said Jenkins. "All you’re using the money for is to get locations and finish the movie. If I had that much money, I could go out and make another movie right now."

The application period for the first grant opens January 28. The first winner of the grants, which initially support screenwriting and script development, preproduction and postproduction, will be announced on May 6, 2009, at the Golden Gate Awards during the San Francisco International Film Festival. More information can be found at the SFFS web site’s Press page. SF360.org is published by the San Francisco Film Society.

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