April 19, 2006

SFIFF. Leggat.

Graham Leggat Two years ago, Jonathan Marlow presented a "Five-Point Plan" for a "seemingly necessary remodel" of the San Francisco International Film Festival. As he noted a year later, at least one of those points was realized (not necessarily as a direct consequence of a mere GreenCine Daily entry, of course) when Roxanne Messina Captor stepped down as Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society. As summer turned to fall, Graham Leggat, even as he was hurriedly wrapping up a zillion duties in New York, was named as her replacement and, as Johnny Ray Huston puts it in this week's San Francisco Bay Guardian, though you may think "right coast" when you hear the name Graham Leggat, "he's considerably more connected with the film community in San Francisco than those who'd recently come before him."

And he's got plans for the city. Big plans. As he tells Jonathan in the following interview, he believes San Francisco, thanks to its geography, history and culture, is primed far more than most American cities to benefit most from a year-round, city-wide presence for the Society and its festival. Until then, there are more immediate concerns: the 49th SFIFF opens tomorrow and runs through May 4.

Your background is clearly in communications, however your predecessor was not known as a great communicator. I suspect that you probably don't want to address the Roxanne Messina Captor issue because you don't really know her.

Never met her.

Fair enough. I was extremely critical of her performance as the former Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society. Did you ever meet Peter Scarlet [former Executive Director of SFFS; current Executive Director of the Tribeca Film Festival]?

I've known Peter for a number of years. I had a chat with him in New York before I came out here.

Did he try to talk you out of taking the job?

[Laughs] Not at all.

In a sense, this is your return to the west coast. You went to school at Stanford, as I understand it?

Film Comment Nov 04 That's right. I did Modern English and American Literature and an American Studies degree at Stanford. Graduated in 1987. I went to Syracuse and did an MFA in Fiction writing with Toby Wolff, then spent six years in upstate New York in Syracuse and Ithaca. I worked and taught very occasionally at Cornell and worked at Cornell Cinema and the art museum [Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art], in programming, publicity, publications and editing. As you say, my day job over the last ten years has been in communications, but I've been doing a number of things at the same time - programming, editing, writing. I am still a columnist for the Daily News in New York. Then I had a very broad portfolio as Director of Communications at the Film Society Lincoln Center. I was the publisher of Film Comment and I oversaw marketing, website design and special events. I did some programming. I wouldn't want to be pigeonholed as merely a publicist, that wouldn't really tell the truth.

That was an oversimplification on my part. Your background, prior to your work experience, was obviously in English.

I worked as a journalist for a few years. I have a novel due out next summer and we're just about to sign a contract with NYU Press for a book on contemporary international filmmakers, a Film Comment book that I'm involved in. We think it will do really well, actually.

When did film enter into the equation? When did you decide to pursue film passionately?

Obviously I've watched a boat-load of films since I was little. The movie theater was both an enjoyment and a refuge during high school and college, both for consolation and celebration, like it is for many young people. I watched a ton of stuff and a lot of my film education came at the Varsity in Palo Alto and the Roxie and the Surf and all the great movie houses that were around here in the mid-1980s.

Cornell Cinema My actual professional hook-up was an article I had written for the Ithaca Times, sort of the equivalent of the SF Weekly or the Guardian. I headed Cornell Cinema, which was then, and is still now, one of the top-ranking college film societies in the country. That's really where it started. I had not really found a home in the professional world until that point, in part because I was still in graduate school. I had, at that point, two children, so I had an odd path through my 20s. It wasn't until my early 30s, when I was offered the job at Cornell Cinema, that I had hit on the metier that really spoke to me and I've been at it ever since.

How did you gravitate towards the American Museum of the Moving Image?

MoMA When I went to New York City in the early 1990s, the first job I had was working freelance at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. That temp job ended and I heard about a position at AMMI. I went and interviewed for it but I didn't stay there very long. I jumped within six or seven months because something better came along immediately at the Museum of Modern Art. Once I got to the Modern, I really felt at home. It's a world-class program, great people, fantastic exhibition.

I went from being the publicist of the film department to running the communication department as a whole. I opened the Fassbinder retrospective in 1997 and the Jackson Pollock show in 1998, along with other amazing shows. I oversaw everything by the time I was done there, in terms of communications, and that was great. But then I just got fed up with a couple of things and started looking around and I was lucky enough to have a spectacular job tailored for me by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The museum world and the non-profit film world are really two quite different organizational cultures. Frankly, I prefer the film side to the museum side, not that I didn't have a great time. If you've ever worked or been in a museum you'll know that it has a very specific sort of feel to it, particularly a big, corporate museum. I had a great time at the Film Society. I wasn't looking to leave and then this extraordinary opportunity came up, to come out here.

It seems that you were somewhat destined, eventually, to run a film festival or something of that sort.

It's nice of you to say so. About ten years ago, when people asked me what I wanted to do, I did say that I wanted to run a world-class film society or film festival. There had been some talk of that at Lincoln Center. You always have to think of succession. I have been looking forward to this opportunity and was hoping that it would come along. There are only a few places that would have lured me away from New York. San Francisco is definitely top of the list.

GenArt There's an overlap in there that we didn't address. You were program director at GenArt.

I was the founding program director for three or four years. That was really interesting to me because it's obviously the complete opposite in terms of organization from what I was doing at the Museum of Modern Art. I can't think of two more disparate things and that's probably why I liked it. Those guys boot-strapped themselves up from nothing. What was really instructive was how they found corporate support for what they were doing and the way in which the social network aspect of film-going was emphasized at GenArt.

Do you know the festival? In brief, there is a premiere and a party every night. There is a perception that it's just an excuse to drink and troll for dates but that's a silly notion. What I took away from it was the way in which film-going is a social experience, where film exhibition has to identify a primary social group and give them a rich experience. It doesn't mean only social groups that coalesce around theatrical experiences. These days, a festival or film society has to speak to other social groups, those who are interested in the written word, in online communication, in viewing experiences via different platforms, such as DVDs or Video-on-Demand. The false construct of the classic theatrical experience versus online or DVD experiences is a bankrupt one for me. I think we have to speak to all those groups and use them to feed each other.

I know that in your columns in Filmmaker and the New York Daily News that you're very interested in the intersection of video games and cinema.

Yes, I'm interested in convergent media.

You were one of the earliest to write about Machinima as well.

International ReMix I did the world theatrical premier of the first season of the Blood Gulch Chronicles, by the Red vs Blue guys. I've done other programs around motion graphics, the web and other aspects of film/game stuff, including one recently with Ubisoft at Lincoln Center. At the International this year, we'll have a program called KinoTak where we will be looking at the way in which different platforms influence aesthetic and narrative strategies. We're also creating alternative viewing experiences and different social groups around those viewing experiences. We'll be looking at cell cinema and iPod cinema, webwork, film/game stuff, DJ/VJ and also what we're calling International ReMix, where rights-free footage from the films in the festival will be available for download and collaging by anybody with online access.

So you're asking for the audience to start mashing-up footage?

That'll also have an international component by some of the next-generation internet possibilities that are opening up in San Francisco.

This leads us, largely, to where you want to take the 49th edition of the festival.

We want to follow the trajectory of media innovation, on the one hand, to see where it leads us in different forms and different audiences. We want to examine and present new media innovations. We have the luxury of being able to trace those to classic media strategies. The offerings of new media are often spectacular ideas but, at bottom, they often result from classic strategies. We want to offer new work but we also believe we're grounded enough in cinematic tradition to be able to present it and connect it to previous cinematic breakthroughs. We hope to get the best of two worlds.

People have always been interested in innovation in cinema from the earliest days. In addition to that, we obviously want to play to our strengths - the discovery of new talents, the celebration of mature talents in world cinema, local work and documentary work, in particular. We just want to do an increasingly good job of that across the range of different programming strengths.

As I recall, you were also considering new venues for the festival.

Cartography of Ashes We're going to have a track of what you might call sub-theatrical satellite venues. I don't mind if it's forty people in a backyard watching something projected on the wall. I'm interested in collaborating with underground places. I just think that's fun.

Have you explored many such spaces in San Francisco?

I have some ideas. We're still in discussions with people, so I don't want to break out the roster just yet, but we have a short list of ten or twelve places that we'll narrow down to partner with, depending on their interest and logistics and so on.

So this is something that will evolve over the next several years, I presume.

We started this year's festival with the idea being that, during our 50th anniversary and beyond, we want to be city-wide. This is the first festival [in the Americas] to reach that milestone and the city provides a unique opportunity to do this sort of thing. New York's too big for that. You could be city-wide and still cover only a space of a few blocks, but San Francisco is both big enough and small enough to make a major impact around the city without over-extending yourself.

Kabuki 8 One of my many criticisms of the festival since Peter left was an over-reliance on the Kabuki as a venue.

You may have that criticism again for the festival this year.

I suppose that it's going to take some time to change your commitments to certain venues. Certain contracts are already in place. I realize that the dates are set and your hands are somewhat tied. In other words, I'm cutting you some slack this time.

That's good to hear.

One year of immunity is all you get. I'll try to be kind.

You will see any number of new ideas this year. Some of them will be in nascent form, some of them will be rather developed for the 06 festival, but I think you'll be able to see, pretty clearly, where my heart lies. I'm interested in innovation, I'm interested in incubation, trying things in the festival and, if they prove successful, shifting them into other parts of the year to build out year-round programming.

I'm interested in, for lack of a better word, hybrid-forms. Showing art cinema in a backyard [a la the origins of Canyon Cinema]. Having VJs work in the Palace of Fine Arts [a la RESFEST]. These are just examples of getting different audiences involved with each other. I don't like the idea of narrowness or clubby-ness and I don't like the idea of exclusivity. I like the idea of having work of the best quality, absolutely, but I don't believe it's just for a few thousand people. I believe its for as wide an audience as possible. I'm very interested in inclusivity and outreach.

The concern here is to develop a new audience for the festival and not discourage the existing audience?

In sort of classic terms, that's how you put it. It's not a strict sort of cynical marketing, "demographic targeting" thing. I just think, "the more the merrier."

The former Executive Director was very active in claiming that festival attendance around the country was down, which was essentially a lie. It helped to justify what was clear to audiences, that attendance at SFIFF was dwindling. The event in the past few years had an air of exclusivity. It seemed to pander to the folks that finance the festival, that is, sponsors and donors, and became less of a festival that's for the people who want to see films.

SFIFF 04 / 05 I can understand that. I think the festival took some body-blows last year. I think it was an unusual constellation of events and it did rough up the festival a little bit. It is often a question of balance. 80 percent of your festival can be great, but if there's a disproportion somewhere and, in addition, you have some technical problems - power outages, projection problems - and on top of that, your membership structure has been fouled up a little bit so your core audience has been alienated... Then, on top of that, you don't have a variety between Hollywood and world cinema. Those things sort of wracked the festival. From what I've seen from just looking over the programming, I think it's been very strong, and some years it's been fantastic. 2002 and 2003 were very good years. I think 2004 and 2005, there was just some bad luck and maybe some bad strategy.

Should we expect, with your past involvement with GenArt, that the parties will get better?

Here's hoping.

One thing that's interesting about San Francisco, as a person who relocated here myself...

From where?

From Seattle. The thing is, in New York, the museum really supports cinema as art. San Francisco doesn't have such an institution. SFMOMA doesn't really give much attention to film.

BAM / PFA PFA [Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley] would be the bastion of that kind of exhibition.

I agree. Unfortunately, it's unlikely for people within the city to travel to the East Bay. It is very depressing that the local press doesn't really cover anything that happens outside of the seven-by-seven, either. The Rafael Film Center does plenty of wonderful things, the Stanford regularly shows great films, the NAZ in Fremont, and obviously, the PFA, as you mentioned. This is probably why I've been so critical of the Film Society for the past several years. It has a unique opportunity to step-up and fill this void. You've mentioned that you're looking to do year-round programming...

Rafael Film Center You can't really make the kind of splash that the Modern does in New York or the Rafael or PFA without a home. You can't just parachute into the city, as it were, for two weeks out of the year and give the people the opportunity to worship at the altar of art cinema and pack up and leave for the rest of the year. Imagine if you were a Christian missionary, for example, not that we think of ourselves that way...

There are parallels.

In the various Amazon tribes, you can't get them interested in your mono- or polytheism and then leave and then have to come back the next year and do it again. So we absolutely, unequivocally, need a year-round home. Not only for the Film Society and our offerings but also for many of the other festivals that are nomadic as well. We would like a film center that's home to us but also a presenter or sponsor of the other high-end offerings in the city. Without that home, our efforts will be harder to inculcate that sense of a citadel or a celebratory center for art cinema.

I would imagine that your predecessor would argue that putting the festival together by itself is a rather expensive endeavor and trying to do anything beyond that would be difficult. My question is, how do you pay for it all?

Certainly, a big festival like this is a lot of work but I don't feel like a Film Society can proceed into the future with one offering.

I won't disagree with you there.

I feel you get more done right, the more offerings you have, the more attractive you are to donors, sponsors, members, audiences, etc. So we have to plan carefully and we have to move carefully to lay those assets in place. And of course, you ramp up your staffing and general operating budget and so on. Two years from now we're going to be doing much more stuff, we're going to have a much bigger staff.

So how you raise money for those things? Well, a capital campaign is one thing that people are always easily willing to get behind and really galvanize those interests, so if we found a buying or building opportunity for a theater, I know the money could be found. There's no question in my mind. In that capital campaign, you raise for an endowment, you raise a cash reserve, and you staff up based on that. You just grow the organization.

Film Society of Lincoln Center You were involved in the capital campaign for the Film Society of Lincoln Center?

The new film center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, is due to be finished in 2009 or 2010. Yes, I helped with that.

This sort of talk was probably quite attractive to the board of the San Francisco Film Society. Where would you ideally want such a venue to exist in the city?

That's a good question.

It's a trick question, I guess.

There are a number of prospects. Some of them are potentially available in the short-term, and we had bigger ambitions. It will take a large capital campaign. It would take five to six years clearing it with the city. It's possible that we could leap-frog from one location to the next until we have our ideal film center. I don't want to sacrifice one prospect for another; I want to keep all of my options open.

Obviously, you want to be in the best possible location. You want to be in a central location that's well served by public transport that also has good parking for people who want to drive. You want a place where you can make a splash architecturally, where you can build big enough to be able to do as many things as you can for as many people.

Your expectation is that it's a place where you will have to break ground? There isn't an existing building?

Finally, that's probably the case. In its final, mature form, it may take eight to ten years to get to the opening of that facility. In the meantime, there are other more modest opportunities. Whether it's a single screen neighborhood theater or a sharing of a multi-screen facility.

The Castro Finally, I think, any meaningful significant facility has to have its own dedicated home, enough scalability that you can play an experimental film to a 70-seat house or you can play a major international or American film in a 300 or 400 or 500-seat house, or go to an even bigger one like the Castro or the Palace if you really need to blow it out. There are plenty of opportunities in San Francisco for rentals, for four-walling.

In the short-term, where do you think you will have to grow the organization? Regarding the programming team and the support staff, are there immediate changes you feel will happen either leading up to 2006 or directly thereafter?

We've made a few seasonal positions in membership and marketing into year-round positions because we need to take better care of our members and we need to reach audiences more assertively than we have in the past. It's not that we didn't want to, it's just a question of finances. Also, we want to do more for filmmakers who visit and for local filmmakers, so we have to do more with hospitality. Operations needed an extra person, which we've hired. I've put more money into programming, so ideally we get more of the films that we really want and more of the filmmakers associated with them to come.

The desire is always there. People love coming to San Francisco, but sometimes we just don't have enough money to do that. I want to be able to do that and some of the newer programming tracks have new budget lines so we can get them off the ground. We'll also put a little more money into materials so that the catalog can better showcase what we're doing.

In what way will that be?

We've been constrained by the number of pages that we put in a catalog, which means that you run the risk of homogenizing a little of your content because you can't devote enough pages to something specific - you have to run it in with something else. That's been a difficulty for us. The reception of the festival will be better and I think people will have more points of entry for the festival if we are a little clearer about what exactly is on offer. Rather than, say, having a section called "World Cinema" and a section called "Documentaries," in which 80 feature films are programmed without subsections. It makes it very difficult for people to see where the trends are, where the focuses are, where the strengths are. We want to disaggregate some of those sections a little, break them out, or at least, within "World Cinema," be more explicit about what's new or what's on offer this year.

To do that, you want to carry that presentation throughout your materials. We're going to add pages to the program and we're going to have a redesign. That way you can see that there are seven Japanese films in "World Cinema," and that's unusual because Japan has not, in the last three or four years, been represented that way. There seems to be an unusual strength in Japanese film this year, so we need to show that explicitly in the program.

There's more digital independent work out of Asia, from Thailand to Korea. So rather than just plugging those things into "World Cinema," into one rubric, we want to be able to break that out, and to do that, you have to have a little bit of context for what you're doing. The materials explain the festival. Presenting the festival to people needs to be more expansive, and when it's more expansive, it costs more money.

SFIFF 49 Program Guide So you're ending up with a program that's the phone book equivalent of the Berlinale catalog.

They're bigger than us and Toronto's bigger than us. The festival probably needed to get over a certain hump last year and didn't for a certain variety of reasons, so it was not received as well as it should have been. Now we have to invest in it and allow it to grow a little more. It has so many virtues and yet you can conceal your own strengths in something as simple as design or the naming or shaping of the program. There was a perceived pandering to this or that when, in fact, a lot of the problems could conceivably be addressed by simply making all the strengths of the festival more visible and see that it's not held up by one strand. In fact, there are several pillars of strength for the festival - and balance between them that creates the alchemy that people love.

That's a necessary evolution of the way the festival is packaged.

Exactly. When we say "packaged," just like in terms of marketing to new audiences, we're not thinking about it in the cynical fashion. We're just trying to reveal the essential shape of it and allow people to understand and appreciate its value more.

I would say, if for no other reason, that another major weakness of SFIFF in recent editions was a certain "color by number" sense to the festival. There were certain events that were established and it was just filling in the blanks. "We need this, we need that," and there was no real evolution in the thinking about what the festival could be.

Yes, and no one felt that more keenly than the staff. The misperception is that if one makes that criticism of this or another festival, the misperception might be that the staff is on autopilot, when in fact, in this case, the staff were in many ways as frustrated by things last year as anybody. They've been dying to stretch their legs a little more. Working capital is the thing that allows them to do that. I have my work cut out for me. Me and the board. We have to raise money to allow us to grow. Already, there's money coming in.

The additions to the program will seemingly require either an expansion of the programming team or a restructure in the years ahead.

The programming team was in transition for a couple of years. There were some young guys who were, I wouldn't say "learning the ropes," but they were early in their careers. I'm very encouraged by their ideas and their essential strengths. I think what you'll see is that people will find their voice, program-wise, this year. I have a programming bit, too, that I hope will amplify our strengths. I come out of this world where the festival hopes to make a splash. It has made a splash for years on end. I hope that I can add to it both administratively but also programmatically.

I'm looking forward to it.

It's obvious that you've given a great deal of thought into the landscape of San Francisco and to our festival, so I appreciate your observation of us. I know just by talking to you that you understand how a festival is constructed and many of the decisions that have to be made. It's not a monolithic thing. It's the result of many different decisions and pressures and influences. You've obviously anatomized a lot of what we do.

Yes, but not always in the best of ways.

In fact, I don't mind the criticism at all. What I object to is somebody who objects but doesn't understand how something is put together. I can't imagine that you would make that mistake. I can tell that you brought a wealth of experience and analytic thought to it, so I consider criticism from you and others to be a form of cooperation.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 19, 2006 7:28 AM


This interview has made me want to move back to San Francisco. Hey Jonathan, has the price of apartments rentals gone down after the dot com bust and these last few SFIFFs?

Posted by: Jerry Lentz at April 19, 2006 5:00 PM

Leggat's emphasis on spreading the festival out across the city and his multi-disclinary/media focus very much intrigue me and provide hope w/ a festival I hadn't been happy with for a few years. Concerning the latter focus, I'm wondering if Leggat has talked w/ the troupe at Intersection for the Arts in the Mission who have been doing thier "Hybrid" series for sometime, bringing in musicians, writers, actors, artists to jam w/ each other. They do very little w/ film so this would be a great opportunity for both organizations to work together. I was at the Indy Press spotlight this past Tues (FOURTEENTH WALL and INSTANT CITY) were featured and both magazines started their set performing a piece inspired by film, so it looks like Leggat and Kevin Chen and Sean San Jose at Intersection For The Arts could really make something happen there. In a city of so much creative talent, Intersection is my favorite of all artist spaces.

Posted by: Adam Hartzell at April 20, 2006 11:48 AM

The prices have definitely decreased since I first relocated here, Jerry. However, they're still fairly outrageous by the standards of the rest of the country (outside of NYC, that is). Still, if you move back to the city, I suppose you'll bring a festival with you? We could always use another. I think we're at forty-two at last count.

As for working with Intersection, Adam, I know that Graham has talked with a number of local arts organizations. Not entirely certain about that one in particular but it wouldn't surprise me. An excellent notion, regardless.

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at April 21, 2006 9:33 AM

Finally was able to find the time to read your informative, outstanding interview, Jonathan! And I notice somebody beat me to the punch in interviewing you--dang!! 8^(

Posted by: Michael Guillen at April 25, 2006 8:34 AM