The San Francisco Film Society, parent organization of the San Francisco International Film Festival, has named its fourth executive director in three years. Noah Cowan, a longtime programmer and executive at the Toronto International Film Festival and, for the last five years, artistic director of the cinema and exhibition space TIFF Bell Lightbox, officially takes the SFFS reins on March 3, 2014. He succeeds Ted Hope, an indie-film producer and distribution maven who left the post at the end of 2013 after 16 months.
Cowan expressed satisfaction with the Film Society's flagship event in a phone interview Thursday morning, a welcome contrast to a faction of the SFFS board that has long yearned for the San Francisco International Film Festival to become a destination for Hollywood executives and stars. The Toronto native did cite the Bay Area's epicurean bounty and technological innovation as elements he'd like to weave into Film Society programs. (More on that later in this post.)
"I think we should start by saying that the SFIFF is a really solid festival," Cowan, 46, said. "It continues to show the right mix of artistically minded films from around the globe and red carpet premieres. It fits elegantly into the current calendar of festivals. There's nothing broken here."
Cowan has extensive experience programming Asian cinema, but his taste isn't limited by geography or genre. One of his favorite films is Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story, which he's seen some 25 times (discovering something new on every viewing). Cowan has a direction he'd like the SFIFF, which runs April 24-May 8, 2014, to go, but it doesn't entail a rejiggering of the movie menu.
"This is a topic I've contended with most of my adult life: the future of film festivals, the values of film festivals," he explains. "These are key questions because festivals feel like the most vibrant aspects of artistically minded cinematic life. In some ways it's a matter of preference, and a matter of strategic decision-making. I just happen to think there are too many market-oriented festivals in the world and we're relying on an old-fashioned model of how we buy and sell films. I'm more interested in festivals like Telluride in Colorado, San Sebastian in Spain, Yamagata documentary festival in Japan where you're not marketing [the attraction of] seeing films first or seeing films in a business context or seeing the biggest movie stars, but you are being offered an environment to truly see cinema as part of a larger cultural conversation. You're surrounded by writers, performing artists and musicians, and eating great food and drinking great wine, while talking about the incredible films you've seen. It feels like environments like that can inspire creativity and provide audiences with lasting value."
Cowan is familiar with the reinvention of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival as CAAMFest (March 13-23, 2014), with food and music now part of the mix. But one gets the sense he's inspired less by any one event than by the prospect of trading Canadian frost for California sun.
"My personal feelings about festivals these days are that I'd like them all to be a little more festive," Cowan emphasized. "It would be great to take advantage of the natural organic opportunities of the Bay Area -- beautiful weather that allows for a little more outdoor activity, incredible access to food and drink beloved the world over, and the entrepreneurial tech community next door. We should be able to utilize these unique features to enhance the festival. From the perspective of a Canadian, the 12-month opportunities for outdoor fun are incredibly inspiring. We have maybe three months here [in Toronto]. That might be a focus for me right away."
Graham Leggat, who headed the SFFS for six turbocharged years until stepping down in the summer of 2011, shortly before his premature death from cancer, resolved that the organization have a year-round theater for its various fall series (featuring new work from France, Italy, Hong Kong and the Bay Area) and ongoing programming. Unfortunately, the SFFS arrangement at the New People Cinema in Japantown failed to attract sufficient audiences and proved a financial burden. Cowan takes a pragmatic view of such a venture, based on his experience at TIFF Bell Lightbox in a far bigger city than San Francisco.
"We're aware of the challenges of a year-round venue," he says. "If the right situation came along, it would be wonderful to offer programming on a more consistent basis. I don't think we'll be spearheading a Lightbox, but we're talking with lots of people, sometimes in sketchy or preliminary ways, and the organization isn't opposed to conversation."
In addition to its high-profile exhibition schedule, the SFFS offers an education program for elementary and high school students. The third major focus, Filmmaker360, provides a range of popular services for filmmakers that includes a well-funded array of grants. This latter program was one of the things about the job that attracted Cowan the most, he asserts.
"In short order they've created a coherent, highly functional filmmaker support program that actually has had global impact on cinema," he declares. "My job is to learn more about it, find them more money and get out of their way."
Not quite, for Cowan's vision for Filmmaker360 extends beyond the Bay Area.
"The Filmmaker360 program points in the direction of ways that the Bay Area can have more of a national and international impact culturally, through the entrepreneurial energy of possibility, which always infuses the place but particularly now," he said. "We can all admit that the sort of mundane production structures of American independent film need that kind of thinking. We're uniquely positioned to lead the conversation in that regard."
It's no secret that the landscape for film production and exhibition has been in flux since the advent of the digital revolution. Cowan said he doesn't fret over how the Internet, in combination with the prevalence of watching content on screens (like tablets and cell phones) outside of theaters, will influence cinema -- or film festivals -- in the near future.
"I have found [movies] to be relatively platform-agnostic over the years," he said. "New developments in cinema always come with good and bad. This current round of changes [began] when video cameras replaced 16mm cameras in documentary filmmaking, and subsequently we had a golden age of American documentary film. While at the beginning there was a palpable loss of aesthetic power in the films we were seeing, that has largely been redressed and the technology has caught up to the aesthetic needs of the filmmaker. To take the longer view, the change was for the best, even if we had to suffer through some crappy, low-res video stuff. I kind of see every development in film taking place along the same lines."
Although Cowan leaves certain types of innovation to filmmakers, he aspires to spearhead a discussion about film in the 21st century that would place the Bay Area at the center.
"I've come to trust the artist to lead the way on developments in our medium," Cowan allows. "That being said, institutions like SFFS have a unique role to play in insuring that certain values are considered as technology makes its inevitable progress. So I'm hoping within the next short while to begin a process where we sit down with film-friendly people at big and small technology firms to start talking about what the future of cinema might look like. San Francisco is kinda small. Getting access to significant players in the cultural and technology and political fields is considerably less complicated than it is in other places. And we should take advantage of that to have what should be a fascinating conversation."