By Justin Mazzola
The late French filmmaker Francois Truffaut said, “Film lovers are sick people.” As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, organizers of a local independent film festival are ensuring this year’s event is accessible to both the healthy and the sick.
The 24th annual SF Indie Festival returned to the Mission’s historic Roxie Theater on Feb. 3, with films screening daily through Feb. 13. After switching to a fully remote event last year, SF Indie is offering a hybrid experience in which fans can stream films from home or return to the traditional big-screen experience.
Not all movies have a happy ending, but fans of the Roxie are glad to be back after the pandemic forced many theaters to close temporarily. Jeffrey Nash, who appears in one of the festival’s short films, admitted it was his first time participating in SF Indie. “I love this theater,” the star of Mimesis said while standing outside the Roxie. “I’ve been here for old movies and cult films and stuff like that.”
This year’s return to the classic cinema experience brought joy to many moviegoers, like two characters reuniting at the end of a romantic comedy. But the origin story of SF Indie is driven by grit, more closely resembling Die Hard than Love Hard.
In 1998, IndieFest founder and director Jeff Ross was intent on finding a vehicle to show his friend’s independent film. It had recently been featured at a prestigious independent film festival, yet Ross couldn’t find a San Francisco theater to show it. He’d also been producing shows for DJs and bands, and wanted to try his hand at putting together a film-centered event. Like any protagonist intent on seeing his goal to fruition, he took action. “I thought … a band lineup is no different than a film lineup … so I promoted it the same way,” Ross said.
Years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Ross scrambled to spread the word about a new film festival. Tapping into his experiences as a club promoter, he posted flyers on telephone poles and left club cards at video stores and coffee shops, doing everything he could to drum up interest in his event. “It was very street-level marketing, which doesn’t really exist anymore,” he said minutes after helping stragglers find empty seats to a sold-out Monday show.
The inaugural event attracted 3,000 people over a four-day span in January 1999 despite being primarily financed by Ross’ credit cards. A year later, SF Indie grew to 4,200 attendees. In 2019, that number had ballooned to more than 20,000.
In an age of Netflix and binge watching, Ross believes film festivals attract viewers interested in discovering new movies and genres instead of simply choosing to watch algorithmic recommendations at home. “Yes, the festival helps them by selecting things that are going to fit what we think our audience is looking for,” he said. “But beyond that, it’s on them to go explore the program and see what looks appealing and take chances.”
SF Indie received roughly 800 submissions this year, of which Ross and his team of curators whittled down to about 26 features and 48 short films. The pandemic led to fewer entries, but over the years the festivals have received an influx of submissions as technology made movie-making more accessible to non-professionals. “You’re not shooting on film, editing is easy — you can make a movie for a couple hundred bucks,” Ross said.
Despite SF Indie’s transformation to cope with the coronavirus, the festival will never be the same. Ross admitted the past couple years have resulted in fewer people attending live events. “While we are also showing films online, fewer people are tuning in to those … as we have to compete in that space with everything on Hulu, Netflix, HBO, et cetera,” Ross said in an email. “It’s harder to get folks’ attention.”
But like any great movie villain, COVID-19 hasn’t been all bad. By adding online options for fans, SF Indie now includes viewers from the East Coast, Europe and other parts of the world. Ross said the streaming option will be a permanent change to the event.
It has also given fans a new appreciation for the annual event. Tony, an Oakland resident who did not give his last name, said it feels good to be back at the cinema despite the current Omicron surge. “It’s nice to (see movies) on a big screen … [P]ictures look different, it sounds different … so it’s nice to see how things are intended (to be seen),” he said. “And it’s nice to be able to go out for a thing.”
Throughout the years, SF Indie’s nonprofit organization, IndieFest, has added more festivals to the calendar, including the San Francisco Documentary Festival (DocFest); San Francisco Independent Short Film Festival (IndieShorts); and the genre film festival spotlighting horror, fantasy and science fiction (Another Hole in the Head). IndieFest’s latest addition to the calendar focuses on environmental films (Green Film Festival).
Those interested in attending this year’s event can purchase a variety of tickets here, which includes options for theater screenings and streaming online.