New Leadership for SFFILM

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Anne Lai, SFFILM's new executive director. (Courtesy of SFFILM)

SFFILM, the non-profit which oversees the annual San Francisco International Film Festival, has appointed a new leader.

Anne Lai's resume is packed with high-profile Hollywood projects. She served as director Ridley Scott's assistant on the big-budget spectacular Gladiator starring Russell Crowe. She also worked as a development executive on other Scott projects, like Hannibal and Black Hawk Down.

But she's spent the past 12 years at the Sundance Institute, nurturing emerging filmmakers in her role as director of creative producing and artist support.

"I love that San Francisco is home to many wonderful filmmakers, and having that base is a fundamental strength in growing a next generation of artists," said Lai, responding to KQED's questions via email. "There are lots of ideas to explore—within existing programs and potential new ones. One avenue I particularly believe in is creating connections and opportunities for artists to mentor each other, and generally be a sounding board for each other as they navigate creative, career, and strategic paths forward. I think that this type of relationship building can have a big impact on sustaining a career in filmmaking."

Some of Lai's projects to date have included local Bay Area talent, like Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You and Joe Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco.


"Filmmakers are at the center of our work, no matter if you’re talking about our youth education, artist development, or exhibition programs—and Anne has an excellent track record for championing important storytellers throughout her career," said Rachel Rosen, SFFILM’s director of Programming, who plans to leave the organization after 20 years of service this summer to pursue consulting. "Her clear dedication to artists is going to plug in perfectly to our work in making sure important films are made, seen, and appreciated. She loves film and believes in its future, and that’s going to be a great match for our passionate audiences and the Bay Area arts community at large."

Lai, who's 48, was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. She studied at the University of Michigan, and received a film production degree from the University of Southern California.

"Anne has supported all of our artists in a robust and meaningful continuum of support throughout the year," said Michelle Satter, the founding director of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program. "She has made an indelible and extraordinary contribution to the work of the Institute, especially in the creation of our work supporting producers and the field and the many filmmakers who got their films made with her insights, connections and creative and tactical feedback."

Lai's appointment comes approximately 10 months after former SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan unexpectedly resigned. (A spokesperson for SFFILM said Cowan is currently running a consultancy for film organizations and distribution agencies in Los Angeles.)

The organization has experienced a lot of change at the top in recent years. Prior to Cowan, SFFILM churned through four other executive directors in as many years.

Lai said the recent instability of SFFILM's leadership isn't a reflection of the organization as a whole.

"The overall organization, which includes the festival as well as its artist development and education programs, has been remarkably steady and strong, which I attribute to its tremendous staff and board," Lai said. "I can only speak to my own intent, which is a huge desire to create a stable and healthy environment for SFFILM to continue to thrive."

The San Francisco International Film Festival was founded in 1957 and is one of the country's longest running annual movie gatherings.

Other Bay Area film organizations are excited about Lai's arrival. "We congratulate SFFILM on selecting Anne to lead this important and vital San Francisco film institution," said Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media. "We know Anne from her great work at the Sundance Institute and look forward to working with her to strengthen the Bay Area film community."

Lai is scheduled to start her new role in March, just in time for this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, running April 8–21.