San Francisco Film Society Film Arts Forum: Beyond Film School


Last night I had the chance to go to the San Francisco Film Society Film Forum at The Lab on 16th St (across the street from where I was yesterday for the Canon Filmmakers Live event). The subject was Beyond Film School. I figured this event was going to be about what to do after film school, and being a grad from AI’s film program who’s still trying to break into the industry, the forum seemed right up my alley. The San Francisco Film Society brought in five speakers (plus a keynote speaker) who are all Bay Area based filmmakers. They ranged in genre, skills, background, and work; and they gave some really great advice about life after school and why they chose the San Francisco Bay Area as their home and workplace.

Here’s a little bit about the speakers:

Mark Decena is a cofounder of Kontent Films. As a writer, director and producer, Decena’s body of work includes award-winning feature films, shorts, television programming, commercials and web films. Decena’s first feature, Dopamine, premiered in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic Competition, winning the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, and was the closing night film at the 2008 SFIFF. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times said, “In one way or another, Dopamine is about us… it holds as its treasure a belief in the possibility of love.” With his next feature, Unflinching Triumph, Decena continued to embrace the digital paradigm in both production and distribution. He has also written narration for PBS’s e2 design and directed “Portland: A Sense of Place” for the critically acclaimed series. Having served as a mentor for the ITVS Filmocracy project through AFI’s Digital Content Lab, Decena is an active member of the San Francisco Film Society and a two-time screenwriting finalist for the SFFS/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant.

Rob Epstein answered a classified ad seeking a production assistant on a documentary in early development and met his mentor Peter Adair, thus beginning his filmmaking career. He gained early prominence with The Times of Harvey Milk, which he conceived, directed, coproduced and coedited. The film won the Academy Award for best feature documentary as well as the New York Film Critics Award for best nonfiction film of 1985. He won his second Oscar for the documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, made with Jeffrey Friedman, with whom he started Telling Pictures in 1987. Epstein and Friedman’s new film Howl—their first dramatic narrative, featuring James Franco and a stellar cast—premiered at last year’s Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, and is currently in theatrical and VOD release by Oscilloscope Laboratories. In addition to his filmmaking career, Epstein is a professor at California College of the Arts, where he also serves as chair of the film program.

Barry Jenkins is an award-winning writer/director whose feature film debut Medicine for Melancholy was acquired for distribution and released theatrically by IFC Films. The film garnered three Spirit Award nominations, a Gotham Award nomination as well as awards from the San Francisco International, Sarasota and Woodstock Film Festivals. The film also earned Jenkins a slot on Filmmaker magazine’s 25 Faces of Independent Film before embarking on an international festival tour highlighted by screenings at the Vienna, BFI Times London and Toronto International Film Festivals. After spotlighting the microbudget film as a critic’s pick at the time of its release, A.O. Scott of the New York Times hailed Medicine for Melancholy as one of the best releases of 2009. Jenkins’ recent projects include the short films Tall Enough and A Young Couple.

Lexi Leban is an independent filmmaker and educator. She is currently producing and directing with Lidia Szajko By The Power Vested in Me, a documentary about the California battle for marriage equality. Her most recent feature documentary Girl Trouble aired on PBS’s acclaimed series Independent Lens in January of 2006 and won the Best Bay Area Documentary award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Her short films More than a Paycheck, Her Tattoo, labor, Tic Tock Bio Clock and Jennifer at 17 have screened at film festivals from Mill Valley to Berlin. Leban has an MFA in film production from San Francisco State University and is the academic director of digital filmmaking and video production at the Art Institute of California, San Francisco.

Jenni Olson is director of ecommerce at and one of the world’s leading experts on LGBT cinema history. Author of The Queer Movie Poster Book (2005, Chronicle Books), Olson was also one of the founders of, where she established the massive queer film industry resource PopcornQ. She continues to write about queer films, as well as curating, collecting and creating them. Her feature debut The Joy of Life (2005), an experimental landscape documentary about the history of suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge and the adventures of a butch lesbian in San Francisco, received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival  and won Best Outstanding Artistic Achievement at the 2005 Outfest and Best US Narrative Screenplay at the 2005 Newfest. It also garnered Olson the Marlon Riggs Award from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

San Francisco’s film world is relatively small (when compared to Hollywood), which just means that the community itself is much tighter. Everyone knows everyone. It’s also more indy and documentary based. All of which I knew, but was also reinforced by what I heard and saw last night. All of the speakers gave me the impression that the tight-knit community is why the decided on working in the Bay Area. And I got at least one good piece of advice from each of them.Going down the line (from the order they sat):

Mark Decena- Don’t just produce work that is empty, produce work that has a voice. If your work can create a spark of change, and has a message, then it will be more personally fulfilling.
Barry Jenkins- Produce work. Period. If you’ve got an idea, make it. Don’t let anyone’s criticism (your own included) stop you from making something. And afterward, only let your own criticism direct how you feel about the piece.
Lexi Leban- Lexi is the program director at the school I went to, so I pretty much knew what she was going to say. But the one piece I got from her last night is that making long format work is draining, it’s better for practice and
development  to make short pieces, that you don’t get tired of.
Jenni Olson- Once you’ve made your work, put it out there. Creating work is great, but use your community, and get your work shown.
Rob Epstein- Rob didn’t talk a lot. And he echoed a lot of what Barry said. But when asked how he’s changed as a filmmaker over the course of his career, his response was that “you put a little of yourself in every project, but every project also changes you a little. Every experience make you who you are.”

Overall, the night was more inspirational than it was educational. But I got more than my $10 ticket was worth. This was my first time at an SFFS Forum, but I will definitely be back.


3 Responses to “San Francisco Film Society Film Arts Forum: Beyond Film School”

  1. 1 Valarie

    I am happy that you took something away from this event. I didn’t get a chance to attend, but I am glad someone wrote about it from the inside.

    • Yea, it was awesome. And for someone trying to break into the industry it was an amazing opportunity.

  2. I am happy that you took something away from this event. I didn’t get a chance to attend, but I am glad someone wrote about it from the inside.

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