Shining a spotlight on The City's myriad film festivals 

Have we got a film festival for you. Make that three dozen. Depending on how you count, there are at least that many festivals each year in San Francisco — and whether you’re gay, Jewish, Asian-American, an environmentalist or a silent-film buff, at least one was developed with you in mind.

The City by the Bay is also a city before the screen: It’s the No. 2 specialty-film market in the country, and the home of more small-scale film presenters and festival curators than you’re likely to find anywhere else.

While the definition of a film festival is flexible, ranging from the one-day City Shorts Student Film Festival and the three-evening Tranny Fest to the 11-day Asian American Film Festival, one thing is sure: San Francisco has a lot of them.

The reasons are almost as sundry as the festivals themselves, said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which since 1957 has produced the San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest-running film festival in the Americas.

For starters, San Francisco enjoys sophisticated audiences; a tradition of creativity and innovation; a constant influx of intellectual capital from leading universities; regional film luminaries such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Pixar; and a diverse populace of expatriates from around the world.

But the final factor may be the most critical: a rich philanthropic community that, through arts grants, foundations and private donations, plugs the sizeable gap between ticket sales and volunteer labor to make many of The City’s festivals financially feasible, Leggat said.

The newest entry in this crowded field, the San Francisco Green Festival, likely wouldn’t exist without such financial support. Nor would Jeff Ross’ trio of homegrown film festivals: IndieFest, which caters broadly to independent film; DocFest, which screens documentaries; and Another Hole in the Head, dedicated to midnight-movie fare including horror, sci-fi, grindhouse and generous helpings of zombies and vampires.

Ross said his organization, which screens nearly 200 films a year and sells more than 20,000 tickets, relies on $20,000 to $30,000 in arts grants to help get the festivals off the ground. Ticket sales cover the bulk of the organization’s remaining costs and debts, bringing its annual budget just above $200,000. “Usually, we’re just hoping that we can get all the bills paid each time around,” Ross said. “Otherwise, we don’t really make enough. We get by on very little.”

Anita Monga helps present a pair of particularly niche festivals at the Castro Theatre on a similarly shoestring budget. Noir City, now in its ninth year and running a full nine days, serves The City’s passionate film-noir set, while the 16-year-old San Francisco Silent Film Festival reaches an even more rarefied audience over four days of often sold-out shows. Both have grown considerably since their first years, and locals remain ravenous for curated classic-film presentation, Monga said.

Yet as far as income goes, she said, “it doesn’t come in through the front door.” Instead, grant funding from the likes of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Packard Humanities Institute helps keep the festivals afloat.

Noir City is run almost entirely by volunteers, and there’s little money to cover organizers’ expenses. “It’s a festival that started out with the model of ‘We’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show,’” Monga said.

Frameline grew from similarly humble beginnings in 1977 to become what it is today: the oldest and largest film festival dedicated to the LGBT community in the world, drawing an annual attendance around 60,000. Yet it, too, relies heavily on philanthropic support: Seventy percent of its annual budget is covered by institutional grants, individual support, and corporate sponsorship, director K.C. Price said.

Within San Francisco, both the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts have played an ongoing role in fostering festivals as small as Monga’s and as large as Frameline. Last year, Grants for the Arts, supported by San Francisco’s Hotel Tax Fund, gave $455,000 to 15 different festivals. The arts commission gifted nearly $60,000 to another five festivals.

A calendar offering a film festival nearly every weekend in a city as compact as San Francisco would seem to point to one thing: bitter competition. While competition does exist for grant money and media attention, Monga says she encourages fellow festival directors to find their audience. Consensus is that a rising tide lifts all boats.

“I like all the film festivals in town, and I’m glad that we’re a part of it,” agreed Ross. “I think it’s a good thing, and I think there should be more.”

First green film festival takes root

It may have introduced the world to the plastic-bag ban and required its residents to compost their kitchen scraps, but until this month, San Francisco had no general-interest environmental film festival. Joining a crowded slate of spring fests, the San Francisco Green Festival — the first of its kind anywhere on the West Coast — screens March 3 through 6 at Landmark Theatres Embarcadero.

The festival received more than 300 submissions, said founder and director Rachel Caplan, and more than half will be featured throughout the four-day program.

“The quality of the work is just phenomenal,” said Caplan, who previously directed San Francisco’s Ocean Film Festival, now in its eighth year. “Then the question is ‘Can the city sustain another festival?’” Her answer: Yes, yes, a million times yes.

“I think we’re all working toward the same end, and the more we can create visibility and awareness and appreciation for film as a medium, it’s better for all of us,” Caplan said.

The new festival shares office space on Ninth Street with the Women’s Film Institute, Frameline, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and the Asian American Film Festival. The various groups work collaboratively, Caplan said. They share resources. They even pass screeners around. “We realize we’re all working toward the same end,” she said.

Yet all the goodwill in the world does not a film festival make. Caplan called the festival’s launch a “100 percent volunteer effort” buoyed by pro bono graphic design, tech support and event production.

About half the remaining expenses were covered by foundations, private donors and grants, one of which came from the East Bay Regional Park District. Organizers even launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to help pay vendors and fly in filmmakers. “It’s really been a labor of love getting this thing going,” Caplan said. “The first year is really tough.”

This year’s program features more than 60 premieres from around the world, including a new film by acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog. International entries from the likes of Sweden’s Fredrik Gertten and China’s Huaqing Jin will join others addressing domestic issues such as water resources in southern Louisiana and a local film tackling development on San Bruno Mountain. If she can prove her festival’s worth this year, Caplan says she’s banking on a bright future, including more money from foundations with green-minded goals: “I think the outlook for us is very good.”

See it now

There are at least nine film festivals between now and June:

March 3-6: San Francisco Green Film Festival
March 9-13: San Francisco Ocean Film Festival
March 10-20: San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival
April 6-10: San Francisco Women’s Film Festival
April 21-May 5: San Francisco International Film Festival
May 12-21: DocFest: San Francisco Documentary Film Festival
May 19: CCSF City Shorts Student Film Festival
June 10-12: Queer Women of Color Film Festival
June 17-27: Frameline: San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival

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Nate Seltenrich

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