How San Francisco Film Society Became a Non-Profit Game-Changer

The "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Fruitvale Station" funder reveals to THR the secrets of their selection process.

As the indie world impatiently waits to learn what films will get into Sundance, one thing seems certain: A large percentage of the competition films will have received non-profit assistance on their road to Park City. For evidence of the increased role non-profit funders are playing, one has to look no further than the last two Sundance breakout hits, Beasts of The Southern Wild and Fruitvale Station. Ted Hope, the outgoing executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which gave money to Beasts and Fruitvale, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the connection between these films’ success and their funding is not a coincidence.

“Nonprofits can give filmmakers a 'get out of jail free' card to listen to their hearts -- and as evidenced by the work that the SF Film Society has supported through its various grant programs, the results are extraordinary, both creatively and financially." 

PHOTOS: Awards Roundtable: 6 Actors on Mistakes, Sacrifices, and Strange Auditions 

Hope, who produced some the biggest indie films of the previous two decades before joining SFFS, believes the growing importance of nonprofits is tied to Hollywood being broken. “The entire U.S. film industry, both corporate and indie, is 'market driven,' in that filmmakers create what they think will sell," Hope says. "This is truly terrible for the artists, the business and audiences alike because it leads only to a regurgitation of what has worked before.”

Michele Turnure-Salleo, the director of SFFS’s Filmmaker360 program, which annually distributes over $1 million to narrative and documentary films, adds: “We’re in a position to take risks on people who are new to filmmaking and support projects that a studio doesn’t think will succeed, or that their definition of success is different than ours.”  While an inexperienced filmmaker with only a great script idea or innovative short under her belt is enough to get the interest of SFFS, Turnure-Salleo warns it’s a mistake to view Filmmaker360 simply as an organization that cuts checks: “It sounds cheesy, but we are looking to have a meaningful relationship with the filmmaker while their process is unfolding.”

VIDEO: Actors Roundtable: 6 Oscar Contenders Reveal All 

Turnure-Salleo is very often finding ways to lend non-financial support to a specific project well before, even years before, offering them any money. “Michelle is hands-on and always coming from the most nurturing place,” Fruitvale writer-director Ryan Coogler tells THR. Acting as a supportive advocate, the Filmmaker360 staff helps by giving filmmakers constant script notes, introducing them to investors and, above all, welcoming them into the close-knit Bay area film community. 

Fruitvale is a good example of the unique, cradle-to-premiere support SFFS offers. After Coogler cast Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz in the lead roles, SFFS’s Off The Page grant program paid the actors to come to San Francisco to work on the script with Coogler at their space in the Presidio. 

“Independent films normally don’t have the money to pay actors and fly them out for rehearsals, which helps get the script up on its feet,” explains Coogler. “On this project, though, it was really special because Michael and Melonie are both from the New York area, and it was essential that they understood the essence of what it meant to be someone who was born and raised in the East Bay and have that culture engrained in them. [Fruitvale] is based on real people who were still alive, and I took Michael and Melonie around to introduce them. We also got to hang out and build a rapport, and you can’t put a dollar amount on something like that.”

Coogler was desperate to shoot at Highland Hospital where Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old fatally shot by BART Police, who Jordan plays in Fruitvale, was born and then died. Turnure-Salleo quickly put the director in touch with Peter Nicks, who had just finished filming his award-winning documentary Waiting Room at the hospital. “Pete got me a meeting with the CEO of the hospital, which led to us getting all the locations we needed,” Coogler says.

REVIEW: Fruitvale Station

Nicks is only one of many people Coogler met as he was brought into SFFS’s network of filmmakers. When it came time to shoot, not only did Fruitvale receive a $100,000 production grant, but Turnure-Salleo helped the film find key crew members in the area. Then, when the film wrapped, Filmmaker360 gave another $100,000 for post-production, which, from Coogler’s perspective, “was the difference in us making the film. We shot in July, wrapped in August and were at Sundance a few months later. That just wouldn’t have happened without their support. The ability to bring a professionally made film to the festival made all the difference.”

Turnure-Salleo is careful to point out that financial need is not the major criteria in choosing grantees, because “all indies need money.”  For example, “Beasts had funding from Cinereach when we got to know them. Someone might question if they needed the $60,000 we were granting them, but we so wanted to be part of it and we were so excited by their vision. And the thing I came to realize, because we then gave them some more money, was that our money, which is often the case when there is equity involved, doesn’t have the limitations or restrictions.”  And as result, Beasts, like Fruitvale, got to do a first-class sound design at the Skywalker Ranch.

“We’re an emotional bunch,” Turnure-Salleo explains. “We love films that touch you and move you, that make you laugh than cry and in a way that feels sincere, not manipulative. That’s more important than need.”

So what else is the Filmmaker360 staff looking for? 

“We have a particular vision, if you look at the films from Circumstance, Mosquita y Mari, Beasts, Fruitvale, Short Term 12 and the new batch of films we just funded, there is a synergy between them in terms of the way the social issues are articulated and the approach to making the films,” Turnure-Salleo explains. For SFFS, social issues are important, but they are looking for projects where the message is organically part of the narrative, rather than being hammered into the audience’s head. The word that also comes up constantly with Filmmaker 360 staff is innovation -- specifically innovative approaches to telling stories and unique processes to making films. For them, innovation is the core value of Bay Area filmmakers. 

STORY: Sundance 2013 Festival Awards Announced

Turnure-Salleo suggests that applicants have a significant advantage if they figure out how a relationship with SFFS will be a good fit for both parties.

“We don’t get thousands of applications. SFFS received just over 200 applications for the $425,000 handed out last week. People are often pre-qualified in a sense. People who have taken the time to really look at the guidelines and understand what our mission and goals are as an organization, who we are culturally, how we like to work with people, it narrows the field quite a bit.”

Turnure-Salleo insists the biggest mistake potential grantees make is not picking up the phone or approaching someone on the 360 staff at a festival or panel discussion before deciding to apply. She pleads for patience. “There’s a myriad of different ways we can help and money is only one of them. We’re looking for people who see the value in that and the community we can build around them. I met [Short Term 12 writer-director] Destin [Cretton] four years before we funded Short Term 12. That's four years of giving them notes on the script and finding different ways to help them.”

Right now is a prime moment to strike up a relationship with SFFS. As Turnure-Salleo waits to find out if five narrative features and six documentaries that SFFS funded are accepted into Sundance, she's also getting excited that it’s time to restock the SFFS stable and find the next batch of filmmakers.