Graham Leggat, Former Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, Dies at 51

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Under his leadership, SFFS expanded into year-round programming and tripled its operating budget.

Graham Leggat, who stepped down as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society in July, died at his San Francisco home on Aug. 25 after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 51.

Leggat was appointed exec director of the Film Society, which presents the annual San Francisco International Film Festival, in 2005. During his tenure, the organization's staff more than tripled from 11 to 23, its operating budget grew from $2 million to $6 million, and its membership rose by 98 percent as SFFS was transformed from a two-week-a-year film festival producer into a year-round cultural institution focused on exhibition, education and filmmaker services. 

“For nearly six exciting and transformative years, Graham Leggat led the San Francisco Film Society with irrepressible determination, dash and design,” Pat McBaine, president of the Film Society’s board of directors, said. “His vision, leadership, passion, work ethic, tenacity, imagination and daring along with his colorful language and wicked Scottish sense of humor have indelibly marked our organization with a valuable legacy and left it in the best shape -- artistically, organizationally and financially -- in its 54-year history.”

Under Leggat’s leadership, the Film Society expanded into year-round programming and now presents a fall season of seven focused festivals including Hong Kong Cinema, Taiwan Film Days, the NY/SF International Children’s Film Festival, French Cinema Now, Cinema by the Bay, the San Francisco International Animation Festival and New Italian Cinema. On Sep. 1, the San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema will open a state-of-the art 143-seat theater in the New People building in San Francisco's Japantown.

Leggat was born March 12, 1960 in Epsom, Surrey to Scottish parents. His family immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where he attended high school. Having discovered the Beat writers, and through them Zen Buddhism, Leggat headed to Northern California for college, where he attended Stanford University. Although he eventually graduated from Stanford, while a student, he took a three-year detour to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where he studied to become a Buddhist priest. He also earned an MA in English and creative writing from Syracuse University in 1989.

After graduating school, Leggat worked as a freelance journalist before landing his first film job working with Richard Herskowitz and Mary Fessenden at Cornell Cinema. As coordinator for the Central New York Programmers Group, he organized screenings and conferences, curated film packages and arranged for filmmakers to tour exhibition venues throughout upstate New York.

Before joining the Film Society, Leggat held positions with the American Museum of the Moving Image, the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He was the associate publisher of Film Comment magazine, contributing editor for Filmmaker magazine and columnist for the New York Daily News. His novel, Song of a Dangerous Paradise, was published in 2007.

At the 2009 International Film Festival Summit, Leggat received the Director Excellence Award, presented to the film festival director who has made considerable contributions and a lasting impact on his film festival and independent film, with an emphasis on festival growth, new programs, organizational structure and overall vision.  

Leggat is survived by his parents Graham and Marilyn of Niagara Falls, Canada; son William and daughters Vhary and Isabelle; sister Alexandra Leggat of Toronto; partner Diana Chiawen Lee; former wife Ellen Hughes, mother of his daughters; and former wife Lillian Heard, mother of his son.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the San Francisco Film Society. A memorial service, open to the public, is planned for late September.