May 1, 2007

Positively Ninth Street: San Francisco's Fabulous Family of Nonprofit Media Arts Groups


Ninth Street Independent Film Center in San Francisco

The Ninth Street Independent Film Center ("Ninth Street," www.ninthstreet.org) is a family of nonprofit media arts groups that share a building--and so much more--in San Francisco's south-of-Market Street (SOMA) district.

If Ninth Street is a kitchen, the city and people all over the world benefit from the prolific and varied pieces produced and distributed out of the building. Groups in the building distribute over 2,500 films a year and the festivals these groups produce draw a combined crowd of about 120,000. These festivals include the Asian-American Film Festival in March, Frameline's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) Festival in June and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in late July.

The building itself is nearly 22,000 square feet and includes a public screening room, editing rooms and festival organizing areas. The building is owned jointly by the Film Arts Foundation, Frameline, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Four additional tenants share the creative space--Canyon Cinema, the National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture (NAMAC), San Francisco Cinematheque and Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools (TILT). The stated mission of Ninth Street--itself a nonprofit organization--is to "secure a lasting space for the creation and dissemination of independent media that promotes democracy, community participation, access, and lifelong learning to a diverse community of artists and audiences."

We spoke with some of the directors of these organizations, as well as a filmmaker, to see what happens when so many cooks share one kitchen. Film Arts Foundation, a member-supported organization, provides much of the necessary equipment. According to K.C. Price, the managing director of Ninth Street, Film Arts Foundation is one of the few support services left in the country for independent filmmakers, offering about 150 classes a year in the building, most of them related to documentary work. Film Arts Foundation also offers fiscal sponsorship to filmmakers--for example, to Ruby Yang, who recently won an Academy Award for her short The Blood of Yingzhou District.

Michael Lumpkin is artistic director of Frameline, a nonprofit LGBT film organization. "For our workshops, the classes take place in the building and we rent equipment from Film Arts Foundation," says Lumpkin.

CAAM also has people who come in and make films at Film Arts Foundation. "San Francisco is a kind place for Asian-American films," says Don Young, CAAM'S director of broadcast programming. "Being in our building, we're with a diverse group of people, but we're international leaders in the groups we're working with." The Ninth Street consortium has also grown together as the independent film community has found its feet.

This past March was the 25th anniversary of the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. This year, says Young, the festival featured its "deepest, most wide-ranging program ever. We're bringing a lot of filmmakers back. It's a viable, professional community. When we were founded, people really couldn't aspire to be independent filmmakers. But we hosted an Asian-American filmmakers event at Sundance this year, and 500 people attended." This May, Asian Heritage Month, CAAM also has films on Independent Lens, such as David Grabias and Nicole Newnham's Sentenced Home, about Cambodian deportees--and Jeff Adachi's The Slanted Screen, about the representation of Asian-American men in film and television.

Adachi, who is a full-time lawyer, says Ninth Street has been a sympathetic haven for a first-time filmmaker "not to suffer the financial and emotional strain of making a film yourself." The Slanted Screen took eight years to make. "When I began the process of making this film, I took some film classes and workshops from Film Arts Foundation," he recalls. "We were at a point in December 2005 where I had to decide, ‘Do we have enough to move forward?' The Asian-American film festival gave me a deadline. There are times when as a filmmaker or an artist you ask yourself, ‘Do you really have something to share with the world here?' The Center helped me identify processes I had to go through to make the film a success and reach its intended audiences. I worked closely with the center to premiere the film and had two sold-out showings."

But Adachi really wanted to get his film in front of people who make mainstream films. "Since it deals with stereotypes, we thought it would be great to bring it to Hollywood," he explains. He and Young recently screened the film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, under the sponsorship by the six major entertainment industry guilds. CAAM is now handling educational distribution. "It's been a partnership at every level," says Adachi. The Slanted Screen airs on PBS May 10.

The building's groups share ideas on distribution programs. Frameline is expanding its program "in response to how media consumption is changing." The company is entering the direct-to-consumer markets with DVDs as well as broadcast. Lumpkin points out that CAAM and the Jewish Film Festival are also distributors. "It's helpful at my level of the organization to have colleagues to talk to, but it's also helpful for other staff," he notes. "They each have colleagues to talk to at the other organizations. It's evolved to the point where there's a lot of communication and collaboration."

In the 1990s, this fabulous family of creativity faced a crisis--and the possibility of losing its home. The lease ended in 2001 and, according to Price, the rent was going to quadruple. Based in SOMA--a historically industrial area that the dot.coms favored for office space--the organizations at Ninth Street were in a vulnerable position as nonprofit renters.

According to Lumpkin, in the '90s the film groups all ended up renting space in the same building. "As colleagues, we worked together in various ways," Price recalls. "We all produced film festivals. We talked about how to share resources. In 1999, we got a grant from the city to co-own a digital projector. The equipment rental for that type of technology is extraordinary. We've saved tens of thousands of dollars over the years, and the building project just took that to a whole new level."

"We were all affected by the dot.com boom in the south of Market area," Lumpkin notes. "Our building sold, and we had indications that our rent would significantly increase. It was the same situation faced by a lot of nonprofits in the city. We decided to approach it collectively, rather than individually. The building project is what formalized the consortium." So, the consortium decided to buy a building.

 "The staff, the boards, everyone had to work together," says Lumpkin. "The challenges were balancing consortium interests with individual organization interests."

Ironically, after years of work as the organizations neared their goal of buying a building, rent became less of an issue. "As we were purchasing the building, the immediacy of the crisis had gone away for a lot of people--press, donors, even some board members--it was not an urgent thing," Lumpkin explains. "Rents had gone down." And they made their move in 2001.

Having worked at CAAM for ten years, Young was part of the Big Move--"literally, figuratively and spiritually," he says. The move "literally was about survival." 

Price says Ninth Street has raised about $4.5 million dollars out of its goal of $7 million to pay for the building. According to the Foundation Center, contributors toward the purchase include the Columbia Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and Wells Fargo Bank. "What we paid down on the building allowed us to have a permanent home, and to stay together," says Price. Also, the owning partners pay a quarter to a half less than market rate per square foot. "Those savings allow us to invest in services," he adds. 

According to Lumpkin, Ninth Street "seems to be unique, in terms of our building project. We're a model for the field of coming together." His advice for other film groups thinking of sharing resources? "Try it; explore it. Be clear on why you're doing it and the goals. It's another piece of work that you have to do and maintain." 

 

Felicity T. Wood is planning to show footage from her documentary project Godlove & the Ladder Dance at Ninth Street this spring. For information visit www.ladderdance.com, or e-mail felicitywood@yahoo.com.

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