San Francisco Film Fest: Early Years

The first San Francisco International Film Festival was held in 1957. The brainchild of Irving M. Levin, a local film exhibitor, the festival was the first of its kind in the U.S.

The inaugural program included 14 features, from well-known directors, such as Antonioni, Kurosawa, Wajds and Satyajit Ray. During the 1960s, the works of these and other acknowledged masters, such as Bunuel and Visconti, were a mainstay of festival programming. During the next decade the Festival gave prominence to its signature activity of introducing important new work from overseas, mostly Western Europe. But major innovations of the period included an emphasis, quite adventurous at the time, on American films by new directors John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Monte Hellman, Martin Scorsese, Susan Sontag, Melvin Van Peebles.

But the early years were not easy. In 1962, Hollywood has extended its boycott of the San Francisco Film Festival into its sixth year. The festival has still not yet received a feature length entry from Hollywood. “We invited every country with which the U.S. has diplomatic relations,” said Irving Levin who is in charge of the festival. “We invited Hollywood too. But nothing has come from Hollywood yet. We still have slender hopes that we may get one or maybe two entries from Hollywood.”

Though the studios have denied boycotting the festival, two reasons have been offered to explain the absence of Hollywood features. First, it's feared that if the festival will grow, it will tend to lessen the importance of Hollywood's own Oscar awards in the spring. Second, it's thought by some that when a picture is entered and doesn't win any prize, it might be damaging. Unless a film gets a prize or positive response, it's believed that its box-office prospects would be hurt.

Only once in the six years that the festival has grown steadily in prestige has a Hollywood movie been shown there. That was two years ago, when “Beloved Infidel” which received poor reviews, was entered by Twentieth Century-Fox

San Francisco is once more engaged in its annual attempt to divert the movie limelight from Hollywood with its staging its sixth annual international film festival. But, the fear is contained in the announcement form Hollywood that next year it hopes to have the most dramatic and exciting film festival ever seen. This boast, plus the continued boycott of the San Francisco event by Hollywood, irritates and frightens those who have worked hard to build up the only important film competition in this country.

Since the first festival Hollywood has done everything it could to undermine it by refusing to enter films. One result of this boycott was that in 1963, the only American representative was an independent production called “David and Lisa.”

Hollywood was suspicious of all festivals, not just San Francisco. Executives have claimed that when a festival gives an obscure foreign film an opportunity to win the critical applause and free publicity, it can make it box-office competition in the U.S. and abroad.

Changes in the 1970s

By 1970, the San Francisco Festival's renown had grown considerably. But, financially, it would take another decade to discharge the debt and bring the festival's revenues in line with expenses.

Meantime programming continued to present memorable work. From the 1970s onward, the emergence of world cinema was nowhere more emphatically signaled in the U.S. than at the festival. Striking a balance between established and non-established filmmaking has been a hallmark of the programming. The San Francisco Festival has introduced American viewers to the films of now universally recognized directors, such as Jane Campion, Spike Lee, and Mike Leigh.


This article was co-written with my assistant Lisa Plinski at ASU. It draws on various sources, including articles written in the New York Times by Murray Schumach in October and November 1962.