Cowan, 46, a creative executive in various roles for a decade with the Toronto International Film Festival, also had a career in New York and is the founder of the Global Film Initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to worldwide understanding through film.
The Toronto festival is one of the world’s largest, with 400,000 attendees each year. Cowan was co-director for three years before taking on other tasks, most recently acting as artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a Toronto cultural center and home of the festival.
Cowan will start next month, just before the Film Society’s major function, the San Francisco International Film Festival from April 24 to May 8.
Film Society board of directors President David Winton called Cowan “the perfect person to continue building on the Film Society’s mission of showcasing the best in world cinema, promoting media literacy in our schools and supporting exceptional independent filmmakers.”
Cowan offered praise to local filmmakers and educators, and added that the Bay Area’s tech industry could be a major influence on the future of film.
After 18 years of Peter Scarlet’s leadership as artistic director, the Film Society had four executive directors in a decade, including Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray, who both died while in the position, and Ted Hope, who quit after 15 months.
The San Francisco festival, started in 1957 by theater operator Irving Levin, is the oldest continuing major film festival in North America. The Film Society, the festival’s parent organization, operates with an annual budget of more than $5 million.