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Celluloid Champ

Sundance darling and new S.F. Film Society chief Ted Hope thinks the future of indie film starts in San Francisco.

Ted Hope has a framed picture of himself on the floor of his new office. It’s a riff on Shepard Fairey’s famous Obama propaganda poster, the “Hope” in this case being the man’s actual surname. The likeness is pretty good: the silvery eyes beaming from behind studious-looking glasses, the mild, question-ready grin, the business-casual alertness. If the picture seems a tad immodest, at least there’s the sense that it’s still on the floor because Hope has been too busy working to put it on the wall. 

Not only does Hope have a big job to do—he has big shoes to fill, given the institution’s weirdly tragic recent history. His predecessors in the position of executive director of the San Francisco Film Society include Graham Leggat, who began revitalizing the Film Society in 2005 and then broke its heart by dying of cancer in 2011, and Leggat’s successor, Bingham Ray, who died suddenly from a stroke last year before his work had even really begun.

Leggat and Ray had taken on the task of letting the city (and the world) know that their organization does more than just put on America’s oldest annual film festival (which begins on April 25 this year): It’s a year-round business that supports both working independent filmmakers and their audiences. But Hope arrived at a moment of enormous cultural and institutional uncertainty. “Fifty-six years ago,” he says, “the only place you could see foreign film in America was at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Twenty-five years ago, you had festivals galore. Five years ago, there’s YouTube, the most glorious film festival ever. So what becomes of the utility of this institution?” Hope has a few ideas.

At age 50, Hope is the prize-winningest producer in Sundance history, and as much an author of the past quarter century of American cinema as any one person can claim to be. His productions have ranged from art-house attention-getters, like American Splendor, Adventureland, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, to full-on Oscar-nomination magnets, like In the Bedroom, 21 Grams, and The Savages. “I was very inspired by punk rock,” Hope says. “If you could pick up a guitar and yell with personality, you could connect. When I went to NYU and really started making movies, I wanted the filmic equivalent.”

Hope’s early successes were many and included Ang Lee’s 1993 breakthrough, The Wedding Banquet. “Everyone had turned that film down,” he recalls. “It was gay, it was Chinese, and it looked like a film from the ’40s—except that it was gay and Chinese. But those who’d turned it down were still stuck in an old mode.”

Indeed, Hope considers it his mandate “to save indie film,” and he thinks that San Francisco is absolutely the place to do it, starting with, and building on, the Film Society’s three main areas of operation—exhibition, education, and filmmaker support services.

Last October, not even a month into his new job, Hope peeked in on the newly renovated Fillmore Street offices of FilmHouse, the Film Society’s residency program for fledgling producers. An open house was in progress, with moviemakers and guests idly mingling and pecking at snacks. Hope’s arrival was galvanic, and a crowd swelled around him. Soon, there was barely room to move, so everybody just stayed still, hanging on to every word of Hope’s brief stump speech. “I want to use the Film Society as an incubator and an accelerator,” he said, to many approving nods. Then, a sort of warning: “You’ll get email from me at 4:30 in the morning.” (Yes, he’s one of those.) Hope added that he knew he was in the right place, and he praised “a filmmaking community that clearly sees things differently than they do in L.A. or New York—thank God.”

Asked to elaborate, Hope says, “In those establishment towns, the stakeholders have too much at risk. But the history of San Francisco has always shown a think-different approach. There’s that embrace of innovation, and a willingness to get off the fetish of success.” When local films cleaned up at Sundance this January, Hope took to his blog with the not unreasonable proclamation that “A Filmmaking Renaissance Is Happening in the Bay Area.” Certainly, last year’s $200,000 grant to top prizewinner Fruitvale, from the San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, was looking like a sound investment.

Hope and his colleagues have since been ping-ponging ideas about how else to nurture the renaissance and make the most of regional movie industry influence. If for now he seems more adept at rhetorical homilies than practical plans, it may be useful to recall that he is also a man who has gotten—or helped get—68 full-length movies made. And counting.