Blog Post

SF International Film Festival Online

As the 50th annual San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) comes to a close, I got a chance to chat with Graham Leggat, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society which organizes this, the oldest and arguably most prestigious festival for motion pictures in the country. And now, one with added online viewing features.

Online video technology gives filmmakers and festivals the opportunity to broaden their audiences, and in the SFIFF’s case they’ve greatly expanded their online efforts to accomodate fans worldwide. “With online vectors, we can take our films out to an international audience,” Leggat explained, adding “we still want to foreground, to prioritize the live screenings.”

User-generated content: Partnering with Yahoo’s Jumpcut, the film society asked people to upload two-minute shorts about sustainability called “Greenworld.” Travis Darcy won both the Grand Prize of $1,000 and the audience award for his animated short, “Oops!

Event coverage: The San Francisco Film Society is also using Yahoo Video to post reports from on the scene filmed by their in-house production team. The “Scoop Du Jour,” hosted by Dorka Keehn, featured filmmakers and celebrities, including this installment featuring Bay Area impresarios George Lucas and Robin Williams.

Online screenings: One entirely unique feature was using Jaman to provide exclusive online viewing of films immediately after being shown in theaters. Up to 100 Jaman users were allowed to view films within 24 hours of their theater screening on a first-come, first-serve basis. “It’s still an impoverished experience to watch it on your computer,” Leggat feels. “We viewed this as an experiment.”

Historical footage: For the 50th anniversary, the society put together their own video player stocked with clips of speeches, trailers and other highlights from the history of the festival. Many of the videos are also available on Yahoo Video.

Why aren’t more of the actual films online? Partly because of the SFIFF’s commitment to the primacy of public theater showings, partly because the festival isn’t in the business of selling the films, and partly because of anxiety on the part of the filmmakers. “Even though we’re not looking for rights, even though we’re very, very careful, still, filmmakers are very concerned about the implication for this in terms of future sales, future rights and piracy,” Leggat explained.

The Cinequest festival a few miles south in San Jose has been a leader in making the films available online, but their goal is to give emerging filmmakers wide exposure in the hopes of promoting their careers or even landing a distribution deal. “We’re not looking at online as a marketplace, not looking to be a de-facto sales agent,” said Leggat of the SFIFF’s approach. “Our primary function is to enlighten our audiences.”

Ultimately, the film society’s focus is on programming, not distribution. Hence the care and creativity in its online approach, Leggat said. “Our whole raison d’etre is that we have a lot of curatorial intelligence and integrity. The flat aspect of the web is brilliant, but there has to be a vertical aspect as well as a horizontal aspect.”

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