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The Rise Of Independent Films with Noah Cowan
As many of you have figured out, we have the legendary Noah Cowan. Why don’t you introduce yourself, your title and what you’re up to, and then we can dig into all the cool things that you’ve done.
I’m Noah Cowan. I’m the Executive Director of SFFilm, used to be known as San Francisco Film Society. It puts on the San Francisco International Film Festival and it’s also the largest grant-giving body and only residency space in film in the country.
Before that, you ran a film festival in another country, is that right?
Yes. I was a program director of the Toronto Film Festival and then the founding artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, their massive building projects just before I got here in San Francisco.
You’ve been at the heart of some of the most important independent film viewing in the world.
One of the things we’re talking about was this weird idea that film curators, film programmers exist to shape the cup where the fluid of artistic practice will flow. All we can do is create the most attractive frames for the work that the real artists are doing. That puts you in a bit of an odd situation in terms of your own work. I’ve definitely seen some of my colleagues in this field think that they are the movie stars, not the ones who are on the screen and I don’t think it’s a healthy practice. It makes you less maybe able to sniff out the next attractive truffle in the film horizon that’s going to inspire people.
I do think that there’s a big gate-keeping role that we end up playing particularly when we’re sensitive to changes that are happening in the marketplace in the United States. For example, with the crazy political environment we’re in here in San Francisco, we’ve made great pains to ensure that we’re showing work that tries to help people contextualize or at least feel comfortable with themselves while the turmoil in the social political world is happening around them.
I want to take a step back and give the listeners an understanding of where things stand in terms of independent film and correct me if I’m wrong. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, nobody was paying attention. Would that be fair versus today?
The big rise of independent cinema occurred right in that era, the late ‘80s, ‘90s when things shifted. It was the ‘70s were the last gasp in the studio system with the young Turks like Coppola and George Lucas and people like that. Many of them are based here in the Bay Area. Through the ‘80s, there were uncertain transitions happening, but I’d say the studios still dominated every conversation about movies and their future. It was towards the end of that decade, with now very correctly shunned Harvey Weinstein leading a vanguard, independent film took off.
There was a number of foreign films that led the way and a number of small films too and that took hold in the early ‘90s when we saw the rise of the Sundance Film Festival and Quentin Tarantino coming out of there or Todd Haynes, some of the kings in the independent film world making an appearance. By the mid ‘90s it was pretty much established that this was going to be a big part of what’s happening and then Harvey Weinstein won his first Academy Award soon after and that established the independent scene.
As far as where people go to discover independent film or at least distributors do, it’s mostly from these film festivals I assume?
Things have changed radically over the last few years because of the rise of Netflix and Amazon in this field and then the coming work that’s happening at Google and Facebook will change it all again. Up until 2014, it was you basically had twenty years of festivals essentially being the theater systems for the independent distribution community.
During that time, the big festivals are Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance in San Francisco, is that right?
San Francisco has had this patchy relationship. One of the most important independent film premieres ever was She’s Gotta Have It at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1986 where Spike Lee’s career began. For various Bay Area reasons, the San Francisco Film Festival has gone under the radar and then come back in the recent years. We’ve been very lucky to have terrific films that found their way into distribution. I think that during that time, those festivals were instrumental in feeding the world of film.
Sometimes controversially, there are films that weren’t beloved, but then ended up on the great success and then others that obviously are incredibly meaningful to a lot numbers of people. It’s good also to recognize that during this time, the studios moved away from what we would call adult film making into more teen and special effects focused film. It left a huge gap in the marketplace that needed a new system to fill.
When people discover what you’ve worked on and the direction of your career, what are they most curious about?
In descending order of interests, at the bottom is like movie stars we’ve met and I’ve met every single one of them and they’re all absolutely pleasant people who I don’t have the time to talk to about. Then going up from there, among the things that concern us is how do real, truly independent voices particularly these days we want to know a lot more about what is going on in the creative imagination of women and people of color and how do we make sure that those stories are heard. Over the last few decades, it’s ensuring that international voices, films in languages other than English, get to be seen by as many people as possible so that we all have more of a global view of what’s going on. It’s really easy for everyone to retreat into their bubble. For us as film programmers and leads in our field, we’re always looking to broaden the conversation. Anyone who wants to talk about that, it’s our mana feed on that.
Let’s say I am somebody who has a story to tell. I want to create a film, especially woman or person of color, what are the most important things I should know?
That there’s help there. There’s a support system that’s now ensuring that these voices are heard, particularly the two large nonprofits in the field, which is SFFilm and the Sundance Institute which now produces the Sundance Film Festival, Have large-scale granting residency and lab programs that will help you achieve your dreams. It’s important that you get your ideas straight in your head, start writing them down, get some help in terms of how you can format a screenplay, and then come to us and talk through some of the granting opportunities that we have. Reach out. All of us have teams both in the documentary and fiction feature side to talk you through the opportunities and possibilities within our programs. It’s something that not only are we doing for mission reasons because we believe in them, but we’re also doing it because we’ve been well-funded to do so. We have wonderful philanthropists and foundations behind us in order to ensure that these diverse voices are heard. Take advantage of that.
Is there some place specific they should apply? Is there a website?
All of the institutions that do this and there are smaller programs at places like Tribeca Film Festival and Film Independent in Los Angeles. We all have artist services or filmmaker help, ask areas in our websites that people can tune into and find a great email address. It will go directly to someone or even a phone number. It will go directly to someone who can provide help.
What are the pitfalls that nobody’s even aware of? The things that when you’re not in the industry and you don’t have the experience, it wouldn’t even occur to you.
There are a lot of decisions you need to make along the way in terms of what you believe your vision is as an artist and balancing how you tell a story with the content of your story is something that comes into great relief as you start to move into this. A lot of people begin on one side or the other, they’re either like a film geek and they’re like, “I want to do it maybe like Hitchcock,” on one side. Then on another side, there are people who say, “The stories from where I grew up are incredible and I wanted to see those told.” Often, there’s not the same dedication to the other side of the puzzle and you need both. You need to have incredibly rich content that touches people and affects them on one side and the other side, you’ve got to understand the medium on how it works.
You would never submit a novel to a publisher without understanding the principles of fiction writing. A lot of people feel like, “I can pick up a camera and duplicate someone’s done. I’m not Avengers maybe, but I feel like, ‘I’ve seen those independent movies. I can do that.’” It’s hard and you have to have a point of view in terms of how you’re making that work. I would encourage people to think about it. If they feel shaky on that stuff, there are plenty of courses and plenty of opportunities out there to start to pick up those skills and more importantly, start to find an enthusiasm for how to shape the medium on and beyond the amazing story that you’re already prepared to tell.
When I was writing my first book, somebody said, “Do you need to write a book?” I go, “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” They said, “No. Do you need to write a book?” Some ideas are best suited as articles for an outlet, an Op-Ed or as like a pamphlet. You don’t necessarily need to write 280 pages about something to tell that story and it’s not necessarily the best medium for it. It had me question how am I communicating the ideas that are important to me? Is it better suited as a TED talk? Is it better suited as a short film or as a TV show?
One of the most interesting people in my field is the head of non-scripted content essentially documentary or reality. At William Morris Endeavor, there is a guy called Kevin Iwashina and he does this crazy thing where documentary filmmakers are pitching him all the time and he goes like, “Don’t you think that would make a better podcast?” It throws them off. They don’t know what to say and he says like, “It’s the greatest question to ask someone who wants to make a documentary because why do you need visual language to tell your story?” If you can’t answer that effectively, you shouldn’t be making a documentary. Probably not a podcast either, but it’s an effective way of asking people the right questions about, “Do you understand the medium that you’re intending to work with?”
The other thing I think that’s interesting is with this democratization of media. The fact that anybody can put out a podcast, anybody can take a photo and they think that if they have an SLR and Photoshop or SLR that can do decent video and some video editing software, that means that they’re a filmmaker, a photographer or a creator.
Although that’s true to some degree, the amount of experience and thinking that the people who do a great job put into it is unbelievable. Correct me if I’m wrong, it would be the equivalent of expecting me to have a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and a basketball and thinking I could be in the NBA.
Yes and no. You have to start somewhere. I do think that there’s something about sports that raw talent is there and we see that in film sometimes with short films by someone who’s barely trained or even untrained and you go like, “You’ve absorbed interesting media in your life in a way that’s incredible and how you’ve been able to digest that.” Normally, filmmaking is a collection of rules and tricks and tropes and the more you experiment with them and the more you watch films and try and duplicate things or think through them, the more sophisticated your craft will be. One of the stories that I love is Guillermo del Toro who won the Best Picture Oscar for The Shape of Water.
Every day, even when he’s shooting, he’ll put in DVD of at least twenty minutes of one of his favorite films to remind himself that there are other ways of doing things. There are opportunities to tell a story and to shake him out of complacency about his own aesthetic choices, because film is so complex in medium. You’re putting sound and picture and multiple pictures doing multiple things around a narrative and dialogue. You can always learn something new. There’s infinity of possibilities when you match up all the different inputs that go into making even one shot in a film.
You should never stop. Famously, we make fun sometimes in the film festival world, that people who are like “TV directors” is not the case anymore. Now that you have Game of Thrones and stuff but in the old days, it was the most basic. You’re looking at an old ‘70s sitcom or something and it like, “Cut to the two-shot, cut to the close-up, long shot.” There’s this very studied formula for how you do it and not screw it up. In these days, it’s not good enough. The audiences can feel that creativity in large part because of the sophistication of what’s happening in the streaming services.
It’s been super interesting for me watching it from the outside. I’m very much not in the entertainment world but having written a book that now has a writer attached to it, seeing how outlets have been scrounging for content, it’s been an interesting experience seeing how everything’s changing.
Particularly in the last couple of years, film doubled-back on itself. The long-form film which is essentially an 80-minute to 150-minute piece of work, but normally 80 to 120 minutes has now had to step back and be very aware of what’s happening on streaming television. If you’re intending to make a period piece and you’re not aware of Game of Thrones, go back and do your homework. People are going to be comparing you in their minds to something along those lines. Don’t talk about terrorism and film without having seen Homeland.
The same way that I think last twenty years of cop shows. In the old days like Serpico and the great cop movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that we go back to sometimes had their own flare, but since NYPD Blue and especially The Wire, I think crime, drama and film had to defer to the masterful work of those shows. Not that there aren’t good crimes films though, but unless they take account of something that was game-changing in its field, you can’t move your own medium forward.
It’s an interesting cross-pollination that’s happening between these long form series and film now that you feel like they’re talking back and forth in terms of the aesthetics that are being presented. Something like Moonlight which won the Oscar, which is a beautiful art film, but it’s essentially a three-part episodic movie. Ten years ago, it would’ve been bonkers to even consider that that film could win the Oscar. Because audiences have become much more sophisticated about necessarily non-sequential material happening on long form series, that film landed steadily in an even more general audiences.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time, what have been your favorite pick for the past couple of years? Things that maybe didn’t necessarily get the attention that Moonlight got but were on par with excellence.
It’s been an interesting couple of years. I’ve been inspired by documentaries that have been fiction-feature films. The film which I think was overlooked that I recommend everyone should take a look at. She is the most interesting new talent. Her name is Anna Rose Holmer in independent films, in a movie called The Fits. It’s 2015, but it came out in 2016. Itself is an interesting production hybrid because the Biennale of Venice helped support the making of the movie. It had a little bit more freedom in terms of what it was able to do than if it was through a more narrow production field.
The film is essentially this girl in a high school that’s primarily African-American. Oddly as the tensions rise hormonally, the film breaks into a magic realism where everyone collapses into these fits, almost like seizures. As she enters into a dance troupe, the seizures and the dancing that happens in the troop somehow merged. That makes it sound arty, but it’s this amazing teenage coming out story that happens to have all these incredibly appropriate but odd elements. I was like, “This is a new fresh idea and a voice and one that I feel is accessible.” On the feature side, I’d say that one would be one like if you wanted to try something a little different really seek out this movie. Then on the documentary side, there’s been so much interesting stuff and so inspiring. I l love the Bill Nye documentary. I thought that was really exciting.
Another film called Check It which is about this gang in Washington, DC. Literally in the shadow of the Capitol Building, which is a gang made up entirely of gay, lesbian and trans young people and they had formed a gang. They were getting beat up all the time by the other gangs in the neighborhood. They’ve become the most ferocious gang in Washington, DC. It’s a story of how a group of people in fashion try and get many of the gang members out of that life and into fashion world. It’s this funny positioning. The start was always going to be this rough and tough gangster where everyone perishes, then it becomes this fun, almost drag race story towards the end. Those are the ones I pointed out to, I was like, “Those are surprising and interesting,” and films that I know that people would like to take a look at.
You’ve been so generous with your time. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the creative in independent film or a documentary, but if I wanted to experience more culture, where do you recommend I start? Is it coming to one of the film festivals? Is that going to be overwhelming if I’m not in the field? Is it watching the independent film channel? Where do I begin?
In the old days, what I’d say is the paramount experiences like experiencing the film with an audience. It speaks to this modernist cultural experience that basically dominated the twentieth century because this is vital that you do that. I’m changing my mood a little bit. I feel you push and pull between engaging with the online television and the streaming service world and then using the live experience as a moment of both experimentation and emphasis on what one’s discovered in terms of this incredible online university we have right now. I think in the old days, cinephilia was limited to super nerds because it was hard to seek this stuff out.
I think the word itself cinephilia would have been only used by film nerds. I assume that means philia coming from the word love and cine from film. It’s the love of films.
The big DVD stores and video stores that popped up from the ‘80s until five to ten years ago spoke to the passion that people had for movies. The barrier jump and now I feel like the great thing about film is that not only is it a vessel for artists, but it’s a vessel for audience passions. Film can express your interest in other areas. If you’re interested in technology there’s a ton documentaries and feature films that contend with those ideas, but they’re not all the social network. There are little ones, there are big ones, there’s everything.
On the other hand, environmentalism, there are feature films and things like that. There’s a way of beginning with your own passions to connect yourself to film and then use whatever that passage in is, whether it’s Netflix or whether it’s through a film festival, take some risks. Say like, “I’m interested in this too,” or, “This sounds like an intriguing idea to me even though it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.”
Then using whatever you feel comfortable with, whether it’s experimenting with a lot of experience with friends and making it a social thing, which is I feel like festivals and the screening programs offer or whether it’s more solitary experimental work that you want to do, which is at home with your computer and your TV. These are both equally valid in terms of deeper exploration of the cultural life of our planet. What I would recommend to people is try and do both. Try and do a little push-pull because there is something uniquely focused and interesting about the immersion that happens with the streaming services. You get into these funny little rabbit holes where you can go take a passage through all these different movies that I think can be a very important personal journey for people. Then go into the movie theater with some other people who have likeminded interest to you.
I feel like what’s happened in a way is that movie image culture and movie culture has come to resemble music much more, where people would have these transcendent experiences on their own with earphones listening to music in their homes and then go and share that experience with thousands of people at a concert. The best thing that can happen to film in a way is that for us to resemble music a little bit more and the people behave that way both with these incredible streaming services and the amazing libraries that they have to offer on one side and for the more adventurous, I’d strongly recommend FilmStruck, which is both old movies and foreign movies to get a taste of the classic and then go to a film festival like a bunch of people.
We were able to show this amazing new film by John Cameron Mitchell who did Hedwig with Neil Gaiman, the famous science fiction writer there. This insane movie with Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman, this weird sexed up science fiction. Crazy fashion movie at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and it was a riot. Everyone had a blast. It brought a lot of people together who spent a lot of time watching cold movies on streaming services. It was like, “I’m not alone. I love this crazy stuff,” and I think that’s important. It’s important to get together. It’s important that you have your own journey, but it’s also important that you get out into the world and experience things together.
Noah, this was absolutely incredible. Before we go, if people want to find out more about what you’re working on, is there a website, social media, how can people find you?
Stay tuned because next is the anonymous interview. If you can figure out who it is, you can win an invitation to Mirror. Noah, thanks again.
Thank you, Jon. Take care.
About Noah Cowan
Noah Cowan is the Executive Director of SFFILM, following roles as the Artistic Director of TIFF Bell Lightbox and Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. Cowan also co-founded the pioneering distribution company Cowboy Pictures and non-profit funder and educational distributor Global Film Initiative. He is the Executive Producer of Jem Cohens Benjamin Smoke and the co-curator of multiple exhibitions, including David Cronenberg: Evolution and Transformation.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Everybody knows this is my favorite part: the anonymous interview. We have an amazing person with us. His first name is Mike and I couldn’t be more excited to have him on. Mike, thank you so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me, Jon.
This is totally my pleasure. Let’s give everyone a little bit of background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up all over like a military brat. I lived in a bunch of different cities across the US as a result of my father’s job. Most people when they ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Portland, Oregon in the Northwest. That’s where I went to high school.
Was there a certain incident, a teacher, an experience that inspired you to go down your career path?
I would say my parents, specifically my dad why I ended up in the same field of work as he was and he probably had the biggest influence on me in terms of what I ended up doing.
I think it’s fair to let everyone know that you’re a professional athlete. You were a professional athlete for how many years?
Your dad was an athlete as well?
He was involved in the same sport. He played and coached and I followed in his path.
I didn’t know that there were multigenerational athletic families in basketball.
There is. Especially nowadays, there seemed to be more and more. A lot of people would point out it’s a strategic advantage to have a parent who’s showing you the ropes and teaching the way. It was a great experience for me growing up.
Was there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
Aside from generally playing for fifteen years as an accomplishment, I would say probably the thing I’m most proud of is winning the NCAA National Championship, which I guess is out of the professional realm, but it’s still a big deal.
That’s huge, at least from what I hear about sports and you know I know absolutely nothing about sports. Is that the March Madness bracket?
Yes. The team that I played for in college, we were fortunate enough to win that and as you know, it’s become such a big deal nowadays with brackets and March Madness and all the craziness that goes on with that. It was a fun and exciting time and something I’m proud of.
What year in school were you?
That would have been 2001.
In 2001, you were how old?
I would have been twenty years old at that point.
Twenty years old and the entire country’s watching you play a sport while you’re a full-time student. I can’t imagine the nerves. Would you get nauseous before games?
I never was somebody to get nervous. You get a little anxious, but at its core, with doing what I did is something I grew up doing. I was comfortable with. I love doing. You relished it, but in those moments when you’re playing in the National Championship game in front of 40,000, however many people it was and then millions watching on TV around the world, I probably took a moment to take it all in and realize the size of the moment.
Was there something completely crazy that you did that led to your success, like a stunt or a dare, half-court shot at the buzzer? Something completely unexpected or maybe like something you did in training that paid off that you never thought would.
I was pretty consistent about that. I would say the one thing is when we won the National Championship, I was a good player on our team. I was not the star, but in the game that we won, I had a great game. I was the player of the game and showed up at the right time and that was exciting for me. It felt like all hard work I’ve put in paid off.
In your fifteen-year career in the NBA, was there a game that stood out? Did you ever have to play defense on a player that was completely like a legend or something like that that blew you away from the experience?
I haven’t reflected a lot on my career, but the other day my kids were asking me some questions and I can look back and say, “I started at a time where I played against Michael Jordan. I guarded Michael Jordan in my first year in the NBA and my last year in the NBA, I guarded LeBron James. They’re probably the two greatest players in NBA history I competed against. I played against those guys, I had a battle with them and I have something to look back on and appreciate.
You’ve got to be part of NBA history. Did we give everyone enough to figure out who you are? You come from a multigenerational NBA family. You were an NCAA champion when you were twenty and you were the key player of that game and you said it was 2001. Over your career, you’ve played against, in your first season, Michael Jordan and in your last season, LeBron James. You also moved around a lot.
I think we’ve given them enough information.
Everyone, if you can figure out who Mike is, submit your guesses online and you could win an invitation to Mirror: The Salon by Influencers. Good luck.