New direction

SF Film Society head Noah Cowan settles into the job — and eagerly awaits his first SFIFF

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A man, a plan: Noah Cowan looks forward to shaping SFFS' future.
PHOTO BY GEORGE PIMENTEL, WIREIMAGE/GETTY FOR TIFF

cheryl@sfbg.com

SFIFF First things first: Brand-new San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan's two favorite movies are 1942 Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story and 1974 disaster drama The Towering Inferno. Appropriately, our first meeting takes place in downtown San Francisco, where that fictional world's tallest building (containing Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and O.J. Simpson, among others) went up in flames.

Cowan is very freshly transplanted from his native Toronto, where he worked for years in various roles at the Toronto International Film Festival; his career highlights also include co-founding Cowboy Pictures and the Global Film Initiative. He's so new in town that his 12-year-old greyhound, Ruckus, has yet to make the move ("He's gonna come down in the fall, because it's been so busy, and I'm traveling a lot this summer"); he's barely had time to find an apartment (home is now the Inner Sunset) and get his bearings.

But the San Francisco International Film Festival, now in its 57th year, waits for no man — not even this man, SFFS' fourth executive director after the deaths of Graham Leggat in 2011 and Bingham Ray in 2012, and the brief tenure of Ted Hope, who began a new job at Fandor earlier this year. As the fest ramps up to its opening this week, the energetic Cowan — a huge San Francisco fan — gives the impression of someone who plans on going the distance.

SF Bay Guardian So, you started in early March, and the festival begins April 24. You're plunging right into it!

Noah Cowan Yeah! But I think it's better that way, because I'm experiencing the key event of the organization. I was able to help out at the very last minute on a few of the bigger films, but [starting right before SFIFF] allowed me to see the tail end of the programming process, and start thinking about ways we want to move things in the future.

SFBG How does this job differ from what you were doing previously?

NC My role in Toronto was really as an artistic leader, as opposed to an executive leader. Obviously there's artistic-leadership aspects of my current job, but I have the benefit here of three really capable artistic heads: [director of programming] Rachel Rosen, who runs the festival and our other film screening programs; [Filmmaker360 director] Michelle Turnure-Salleo, who runs the filmmaker services and filmmaking area; and Joanne Parsont, who is a gifted director of education. I'm more strategic guidance and day-to-day administration, really learning how to run and expand and change the business.

In my career, I've gone back and forth between these two tendencies. I really feel now that I want to be back in the executive director's seat. I was co-president of my own business for almost 10 years, and I've really missed that — the ability to mentor staff and to shape the overall tone of an institution. San Francisco provides unusually interesting opportunities for making a new kind of institution. It's just a place that loves invention, and the people, including our board, have a real can-do attitude about change. For me, it's a dream come true! I just need to get through the festival [laughs] to get a breath.

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