Jack L. Warner and Jack Valenti attend the 1966 San Francisco International Film Festival. Warner photo by Bob Gunther. Valenti photo by Vano-Wells-Fagliano Photography.

In a time when it seems that every hamlet with enough wall space to hoist a screen mounts its own international film festival, it's surprising to learn that there was no serious attempt to stage such an event in the United States before 1957 in San Francisco. The subject here is the against-all-odds survival of the Festival during its infancy.

By Lee Amazonas

Venice started it all in 1931, and 1946 saw the beginning of the spring ritual in Cannes. The Berlin festival, aided by US post-war reconstruction funds, got off the ground in 1953.

San Francisco's Italian Film Week, staged by Italian Consul Pierluigi Alvera and Irving "Bud" Levin in 1956, was the precursor to the first San Francisco International Film Festival in December 1957 (founded by Levin). The details of the Festival's formation is a story for another time. The subject here-less than two years away from the Festival's 50th anniversary-is the against-all-odds survival of the Festival during its infancy.

The first stumbling block was the lack of funding. Largely financed by Levin, it was in-kind donations from local businesses, sponsorships by nonprofit organizations and battalions of volunteers-including many local socialites-that helped keep the event alive. The first contribution from the city of San Francisco, $5,000, arrived in 1960, for the fourth festival. The city's offering remained at this token level for two years, then rose to $20,000, only to fall in 1963. (Compare this with government support of $250,000-400,000 to festivals in Venice, Berlin, Cannes and Vancouver during this period.) Aid promised by the State Department in 1960 never materialized. The Chamber of Commerce occasionally offered verbal support, but no cash. After Levin requested funding from the city's Tourist Bureau, the agency reportedly responded by asking Levin for money.

A second challenge for the fledgling festival was acquiring the best of international cinema. Official recognition from the International Federation of Film Producers Association, granted to the Festival in 1958, should have secured cooperation from most international producers and distributors for films as well as for directors and performers as guests. When a festival met certain criteria, the IFFPA gave its sought-after "A" rating (acquired by SFIFF in 1964). In theory, this allowed a festival increased access to films and assistance by the world's film producers. Oddly enough, as the San Francisco festival gained in stature, it found it increasingly difficult to obtain some of the best films.

The reasons were economic. Foreign films had begun to find an audience in the U.S., and local distributors and exhibitors didn't want to see any erosion of their niche audience. The SFIFF showed most of its features in competition in those days. If a highly anticipated Italian or British film failed to win a top award at the festival, the asking price could drop. Films that received bad or indifferent reviews locally during a high profile festival could damage the box office potential around the country.

By far the most frustrating obstacle during these early years was the lack of interest of the major Hollywood studios in entering American films in the only U.S.-based international film festival. As early as 1958, the motion picture trade papers Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Film Daily all published positive articles about SFIFF, questioning Hollywood's wisdom in ignoring this new venue. While American independent films appeared in the program regularly (John Cassavetes' Shadows and Frank Perry's David and Lisa, to name two), it wasn't until 1959 that a major American production played the Festival (Henry King's Beloved Infidel) and then not another until 1963 (Carl Foreman's The Victors).

Many reasons were suggested for Hollywood's early aversion to the Festival: An American festival would detract from the Academy Awards; Los Angeles was jealous of San Francisco's leg up on the festival designation; Hollywood felt threatened by the growing appeal of foreign films. While Hollywood had been entering films in festivals overseas, there was perhaps more to lose and less to gain by risking a lukewarm reaction at home.

Many additional troubles that are readily weathered by more established festivals could have easily sunk the neophyte SFIFF: power outages, last minute withdrawal of highly anticipated films (for example, La Dolce Vita in 1960), an Opening Night reel mixup, hotel cancellations, seesawing ticket sales, no-show guests like the much-promoted Sophia Loren, a missing juror, constant carping over the lack of glamour (quickly followed by disapproval of too much glitz), not to mention the Cuban missile crisis.

At the end of every Festival, either a newspaper columnist or an industry insider or Levin himself would declare that this was the last SFIFF ever. But within weeks, the buzz would begin: what films might show, who might come and how much this little festival has grown.