From his office in the San Francisco Film Society's complex in the Presidio, Graham Leggat can look out across the quadrangle of the former Army base and fix his gaze on the Presidio Bowling Center. When he does, it's a cinch he's not dreaming of sparing a tricky seven-ten split at the modest, twelve-lane recreational facility, where enlisted men once whiled away their leisure time.
In his mind's eye, Leggat undoubtedly envisions a permanent film center for the film society, a place where the SFFS, the umbrella organization of the San Francisco International Film Festival, can stretch out and show whatever it wants, whenever it wants, à la Walter Reade Theater and Avery Fisher Hall at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, where Leggat once worked.
Such a home base has been at the top of the wish list ever since the film festival began in 1957, but it has always proved elusive in the eyes of the people who ran the festival. The bite-sized Vogue on Sacramento Street was always unavailable. Union Street's Metro was too big (and still sits dark). And so on. In their place, the SFIFF has relied on the comfy eight-screen Kabuki on Post Street — now comfier after its Sundance upgrade — as well as the Castro, SFMOMA, the Clay, and various ad hoc venues around the city, in addition to UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive.
All the while the SF Film Society has been ramping up its operations. When Leggat moved from New York into the executive director's chair in late 2005, the film society was sponsoring thirty to forty programs per year in addition to the annual festival. Now, beams the ambitious Leggat on a sunny late-winter day in his movie-postered office, there are some 130 separate programs throughout the year. "We've tripled the number of events," he declares. "We need a home after fifty years."
If Leggat and the SFFS get their way, the new film center will inhabit a rehabilitated historic theater on the Presidio's Main Post. It would have at least one screen but as many as three, with a target opening date sometime in 2011. According to Leggat, the talks are in the very early stages but signs are hopeful. Of course, all this depends on the goodwill and due diligence of the Presidio Trust, which must approve all developments in San Francisco's most prized patch of real estate.
Given the presence of Lucasfilm's Letterman Digital Arts Center at the Presidio's main entrance and the proposal by Doris and Donald Fisher to build a public museum to house their contemporary art collection — which would occupy a site near the putative film center but is not otherwise connected to the SFFS — it would seem the Presidio is already fairly arts-friendly. A draft environmental impact report, which includes an analysis of the proposed film center, is scheduled to be released this summer. In the meantime, the SFFS is planning a public relations blitz, including educational and community outreach programs, to stress the value of a permanent film center to the Bay Area's cultural scene. "It will have a transformative effect," promises Leggat.
One of the SF Film Society's plummiest new projects is a partnership with Sundance Cinemas, operators of the Kabuki. Beginning June 13, the film society plans to program one of the Kabuki's eight screens with week-long engagements or split runs of foreign films such as The Violin and homegrown American indie product. Thus, for instance, films that were sold out at the annual festival, or special screenings with visiting filmmakers, could be calendared into the Kabuki, giving the SFFS a year-round, daily outlet for its programming.
It's all part of what Leggat thinks of as the SFFS' Five-Year Plan, alongside such elements as the exhaustive, indispensable online daily of all things filmic in the Bay Area, SF360.org, and the festival's ever-expanding schedule of ancillary events. The idea seems to be to grow the film festival and its operations to accommodate a cultural market that's already there, anxiously waiting. That's good news for the film nerds — Leggat prefers to call them cinephiles — who have made the SF fest legendary as one of the world's best for soaking up the widest possible range of international films and videos in a relaxed, relatively non-commercial atmosphere. Declares Laggat: "Our expansion is specifically for cinephiles. We'd like to provide festival-style programming all year round. Actually, there's so much demand we have to expand. It should be catnip to cinephiles."
In an era when arts organizations are plagued by identity crises and dried-up funding, Leggat and his merry band of film freaks actually brag about their business. "We've doubled our annual operating income since I came," he says. "We've increased the staff by fifty percent and tripled the corporate sponsorship," pointing to the festival's new "Platinum Sponsor," Conde Nast's celebrity-happy Vanity Fair magazine. Insists Leggat: "We believe we can grow audiences indefinitely. Our repertory is contemporary, unlike the ballet or symphony. It's always fresh, always reaching out. Unlike other arts organizations, we never worry about gaining new and younger audiences. We get them every year. We're continually exploring new ideas and new ways."
True to San Francisco tradition, Leggat takes part in the festival's bookings ("I collaborate") but prefers to chart the course with broad, deliberate strokes. "Our organizational mandates are internationalism, education, Bay Area consciousness, and new technologies," he explains. "Local filmmakers also play a large part for us. We're looking for films that deliver character, intelligence, style, and the voice of literature." Also, in a reflection of the Bay Area's politics, the SF International stresses social responsibility. "The films the Film Society shows survey a wide range of contemporary voices from around the world," writes Leggat in response to this reporter's query. "As such they provide both a reflection of the world today and also, since they are chosen with progressive values in mind, a direction and impetus as to what the world is becoming or might become, if all goes well." Let's hear Cannes or Toronto top that. Leggat elaborates: "We believe that by showing extraordinary unsung films in a rich context we have the capacity to transform people's lives and thus change society. We are not didactic or tendentious about this. We don't screen screeds, polemics, or other one-dimensional nonsense. Instead we believe that in choosing work that is innovative and sophisticated and contrarian and beautiful and honest that we are contributing to social change. And that's very important to us."
Leggat has a bit of Bay Area history. Born in 1960 in the UK, he is the namesake of his father, a renowned Scottish international soccer footballer who moved the family to Canada in the mid-'70s. The younger Leggat gravitated to San Francisco in 1979, spent time at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and the SF Zen Center, and received a BA in modern English and American literature and American studies from Stanford in 1987. His literary background has played a significant part in his various film festival and museum jobs, especially at New York's Museum of Modern Art and at the Lincoln Center Film Society, where he was director of communications as well as associate publisher of Film Comment magazine.
In the festival world it helps to be a confirmed movie fanatic. Leggat haunted the repertory houses in his youth, devouring a mixed bag of flickers. Straw Dogs, In the Realm of the Senses, Alice's Restaurant, and the original Ridley Scott Alien are among his all-time favorites, and he admits to a fondness for the films of Lindsay Anderson — particularly the Mick Travis trilogy of If, O Lucky Man!, and Britannia Hospital, starring Malcolm McDowell — and David Lynch, especially The Elephant Man. Leggat's preferred commercial-release films of 2007 reflect his broad interests: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (his number one of the year), Into the Wild, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, Michael Clayton ("I enjoyed its restraint"), There Will Be Blood, Scott's American Gangster, and Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum. In fact, he recommends all three Bourne films.
Because the film festival is ultimately a business like any other, Leggat tends to emphasize the you-can't-get-this-anywhere-else aspect of the SFIFF's annual spring orgy. "The multiplex is like a vending machine," he observes. "We're like a picnic." If that's the case, the fest's audiences are in for a taste of the overlooked snacks and finger foods of world cinema, in addition to the perennial staples from France, England, and other European cultural citadels. Leggat cites Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Thailand), Eastern Europe (Hungary, Romania), and Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico) as especially prime for exploration, with Spain making a strong showing among the Euros. But let's not forget the American indies. So many films, so little time.
*Note: The original version of this story contained some errors. This version has been corrected.