DIY sci-fi: Brant Smith (DJ Bad Vegan) is shooting his latest "In-World War" at a variety of Bay Area and international locations. (Photo courtesy filmmaker)

Bay Area Narrative Filmmakers Thriving in Doc Capital

Michael Fox December 23, 2009

When I received the proposal last January to write a weekly “In Production” column for, I had no concerns about finding sufficient material—that is, local works in various stages of progress. As you well know, the Bay Area is the only place in the country outside of the industry town of Los Angeles and the megalopolis of New York that could sustain a weekly column on independent filmmaking. The challenge I expected was (un)covering a halfway respectable number of narrative features to balance the famously overwhelming output of documentary makers. But as the year unfolded, the trickle of fiction films built to, well, not a flood but a very healthy stream–in the middle of a depressing recession. While I’m not quite ready to anoint the Bay Area as Indiewood North (or West), I have found that something’s certainly going on.

“There is definitely a foundation for an ongoing scene here, but a lack of strong structures to support it,” says DJ Bad Vegan, co-writer and producer of the locally shot Quality of Life, and now in production on his directorial debut, In-World War. And that’s the $64,000 question: Is the boon in narrative filmmaking a sustainable trend or a fluke?

First, if you’re skeptical that I’m waving my pom-poms without cause, here’s the 2009 tally of Bay Area narratives: Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New premiered at Sundance, and just wrapped a one-week run at the Roxie. Jon Bowden’s The Full Picture and Daniel Davila’s Harrison Montgomery played at SF Indie Fest in February. Peter Bratt’s La Mission opened San Francisco International Film Festival, and Jonathan Parker’s (Untitled), David Lee Miller’s My Suicide and Everything Strange and New graced the SFIFF52 lineup. Ellen Seidler and Morgan Siler’s And Then Came Lola and Cary Cronenwett’s Maggots and Men debuted at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. In the fall, the Mill Valley Film Festival showed Dia Sokol and Lauren Veloski’s Sorry, Thanks (which also screened in San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay), Rob Nilsson’s Imbued and Michael Anderson’s Tenderloin. Jeff Mizushima’s Etienne! played Cinema by the Bay and Eric Kutner and Adam Goldstein’s The Snake heated up the Frozen Film Festival. And let’s not overlook the national theatrical release of the highest-profile Bay Area indie feature of the year, Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy.

The obvious catalyst is the digital revolution, as desktop editing and inexpensive cameras have erased the financial barriers to entry. Of course, production of indie features has exploded all over the place as a result, not just here. And as any festival programmer will (un)happily tell you, the biggest effect of cheap gear has been an explosion in crappy movies.

What distinguishes the low-budget films listed above—which were assuredly not chosen by local festivals out of mercy or nepotism—is snappy, honed writing and vividly developed characters. Forget the glib mainstream-media storyline of a new generation of technically and visually sophisticated filmmakers who learned their skills by the third grade. Solid writing and talented actors are still essential, and the great majority of Bay Area filmmakers have arrived at the same conclusion.

The Bay Area can’t come close to L.A. or New York in a casting call, especially with respect to name actors, but that doesn’t mean that a local production doesn’t have some advantages. “There are so few narrative features that people are hungry to work on them, and thus you can get great people at great rates if you have a great script,” DJ Bad Vegan reports. “In L.A., there’s no lack of projects looking for cheap cast and crew, so while the talent pool is bigger, the competition is fierce.”

Once the film is in the can, a slew of top-drawer composers, sound designers and post houses stand ready to work with and support local filmmakers, from Skywalker Sound to Video Arts to Berkeley Sound Artists. Indeed, that’s long been one of the Bay Area film community’s assets, along with its access to innovative companies in digital tools and online distribution.

There’s a lot of work to do on many fronts, although one arena in which there is no dearth of opportunities is local exhibition. Another positive indicator is the number and scope of local features currently in pre- or postproduction. In other words, there’s plenty of cause for optimism. Especially, may I add, if you can read tea leaves. Recall that the banner year of 2009 began with the Sundance debut of Everything Strange and New. In a few weeks, Park City hosts the premiere of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl. Unrelated coincidence or a premonition of great things to come? I think you know where I stand.

This is part of an ongoing conversation, but I would be remiss if this discussion of production and money and logistics and career ambitions didn’t include some acknowledgment of the underlying philosophical imperatives of narrative filmmaking.

For that I turn to veteran filmmaker JP Allen of Coffee and Language Productions, which opens Stephanie’s Image, directed by Janis DeLucia Allen and starring Melissa Leo, Feb. 15 at the Opera Plaza.

“We’re living through a storm of media, including narrative films,” he says. “But I think the primary question of film and art remains the same: Is something of importance and beauty being communicated? That’s the acid test. Because so many films are being created, not just in the Bay Area but everywhere, that question is even more critical.”

[Editor’s note: The San Francisco Film Society,’s publisher, has undertaken a number of initiatives to build an infrastructure/community for narrative filmmakers in the Bay Area, beginning with the SFFS/Kenneth Rainin Foundation grants for narrative features with social-justice themes. The SFFS FilmHouse Residencies, open to both fiction and doc makers, provide a physical space where connections (and who knows, future collaborations) can occur. There’s more on tap at see the "Filmmaker Services" and "Classes & Workshops" sections as a starting point.]

Notes from the Underground
Howl is the film selected to screen here Jan. 28 at the Sundance Kabuki as part of the inaugural one-day Sundance Film Festival program scheduled in eight cities during the Park City bash. Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman will attend the Kabuki show, along with other notables. … San Francisco Cinematheque is soliciting entries for a new (and hopefully annual) festival, Crossroads: A Festival of New & Rediscovered Films. Drop a line to for guidelines and a submission form, which is due back by Feb. 10.

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