Academy Grant Jump Starts SF International's 50th

Susan Gerhard August 23, 2006

Surprises visited upon arts organizations in these boom-turned-bust times have generally not been pleasant. Last week offered an exception: The San Francisco Film Society announced August 10th that its SF International Film Festival had received a “secure foundation” grant of $150,000 to be received over three years from the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). It’s an award that’s bestowed upon an organization rather than applied for by it, not unlike the MacArthur Fellowships, and this surprise was a welcome one.

“We feel ourselves very lucky to have received this honor,” SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat told “The 50th Anniversary is an extraordinary milestone for the International, indeed for American film festivals in general, and we could not be happier than to have the Academy’s arm around our shoulders as we move into this landmark year.” (Editor’s note: is a co-publication of indieWIRE and the SF Film Society.)

The SF International Film Festival has received grants from the Academy before, most recently 2006’s Academy Foundation Film Festival grant of $25,000 for its Schools at the Festival education program. The Academy, presenter of the annual Oscars, offers about half a million dollars in grants to film institutions, including film schools and festivals, and another half million in separate film festival grants, in addition to monies awarded individual film scholars and screenwriters every year. Recipients of the festival and institutional awards have been many and diverse, from Los Angeles’s American Film Institute to the presenters of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in New York to San Francisco’s Frameline to the African Diaspora Film Festival.

The new “secure foundation” grant, however, is a pilot program of the Academy, now in only its third year, and developed with a different funding strategy in mind, according to Greg Beal, program coordinator for the Academy’s grants and Nicholl Fellowships. The Academy noticed that its film festival grants were reaching a large group of festivals with great ideas. But funding festival programs for one year only, rather than for consecutive years, explained Beal, left uncomfortable gaps for those institutions. So the Academy decided to create a grant that would not just fund an idea a festival created for one year, but, said Beal, actually “sustain a new idea for a venerable film festival.”

The first two years of the grant offered funding to the Telluride Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival, which both created or expanded educational programs. Richard Raddon, Festival Director for the Los Angeles Film Festival told, “Receiving the grant from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was truly a monumental moment for the Los Angeles Film Festival. Not only was it a wonderful endorsement from the industry’s most prestigious institution, the grant allowed us to expand our high school screening program. This revitalized program had an enormous impact on the lives of the youth participants at the 2006 Festival.”

“With the Academy guaranteeing funds for three years, our hope is that this type of grant will help a festival build a sturdy foundation for a project,” Festival Grants Committee Chair Gale Anne Hurd was quoted saying in the AMPAS press release on the grant. “That kind of security will permit a festival to take some chances with programs they might otherwise not be willing to try.”

The SF International is preparing to deploy the Academy grant by building on core areas it’s already been exploring and expanding, says Leggat. “We are duty bound to give the Academy three proposals outlining areas where we might apply the money with their approval. We haven’t finished that process yet, but generally speaking, the areas we’re interested in further innovating in are: new works and new platforms, media literacy and youth film education, and international cinema and cross-cultural understanding.”

According to the Academy’s Beal, the choice of San Francisco for this particular year was easy. “It’s their 50th anniversary. I think everyone’s excited about being a part of San Francisco’s 50th. And it’s the oldest film festival in the United States. San Francisco’s also one of the most important film festivals in the world.”

“The 50th anniversary of the festival is at once a destination and a departure point,” says Leggat. “It’s the culmination of a half-century of extraordinary achievements, of course, but it’s also the first day of the rest of the organization’s life, as it were. The fact that this grant helps us pivot from honoring tradition to continuing our ongoing explorations of new work into the future is perfect for us.”

If, on reflection, the Academy finds its new three-year-granting program achieving what it intended, other respected film festivals will continue to benefit as well. Said Leggat, “It’s noteworthy how much the Academy does for nonprofit art institutions large and small around the country. Some people mistakenly think that the Academy is nothing but the Oscars, but in fact, it does an extraordinary amount of very good work nationally and should be recognized for its far-sightedness and generosity.”