In Focus: Noah Cowan, New SFFS Executive Director

Photo: George Pimental. Wireimage/Getty for TIFF.

Photo: George Pimental. Wireimage/Getty for TIFF.

The experience of watching a film in a beautiful cinema continues to be among the most rewarding of contemporary cultural experiences.
— Noah Cowan, SFFS Executive Director

We caught up with Noah Cowan for a quick Q&A on the occasion of our exciting announcement.

When you think about the future of cinema, what are you most excited by?

Noah Cowan (NC): The medium is stretching in ways we never would have imagined. Long form television is recognizably cinematic in a way we have not seen before. Gaming has taken on the project of making film history interactive with exciting new formal innovations. And experiments on the web confirm the vital malleability of cinema as a storytelling form every day. And yet...the experience of watching a film in a beautiful cinema continues to be among the most rewarding of contemporary cultural experiences. All of these experiences are different and yet somehow connected. It's neither the job nor the commercial imperative of the innovators in these various fields to embrace what connects their own explosive creative arenas but I do believe we, as a not-for-profit film organization, can help organize and make understandable the gamut of moving image storytelling today...and even influence its future course, through a great Festival, amazing educational programs and by directly intervening in the creative lives of filmmakers themselves.


What was it about the San Francisco Bay Area that drew you in?

NC: (Insert Canadian winter joke) But the real reason is that this organization—San Francisco Film Society—is engaging in areas of great interest for me. Festivals are in my blood and I look forward to working with Rachel and her team to identify possible growth areas for this storied event. The more I learn about the Education initiatives—particularly the collaborative work across the Bay Area and with leading companies like Lucasfilm and Pixar—the more excited I become. Filmmaker360 is resetting the relationship of institutions to filmmakers—and that really matters. Here too we can continue to explore the possibilities of growth to ensure our impact transcends San Francisco and the U.S. border. I also feel that the Bay Area has a number of interesting film organizations ripe for partnerships and alliances that could help develop the region into a hub of moving image storytelling, presumably with the help of our tech sector friends...but let's not get too far head of ourselves on that quite yet!


What is the last film you saw that you absolutely loved watching in a theater?

NC: For very different reasons, Gravity and Stranger by the Lake. Cinema's possibilities are endless and humbling.


Who is/are your all time favorite filmmaker/s?

NC: Ooh, tough one. I've written more than a few sentences about Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Raj Kapoor, Grace Kelly, Chen Kaige, Gregg Araki, Mani Rathnam, David Cronenberg, Derek Jarman and James Ivory. My favorite films are The Towering Inferno, The Palm Beach Story, In The Mood For Love and La Notte. Go figure! My therapist is even baffled.


What new film-related sites, apps, trends, organizations, people, etc. have you been nerding out about lately?

NC: I guess I am moving to the Bay in part to begin this dialogue more seriously. I feel like I am absorbing a lot of seemingly random information these days and feel like I want to find a community of innovative and film-obsessed media interlocutors to sort the wheat from the chaff. Honestly, there is a lot of chaff in my opinion online and on my phone, and not enough space to sustain thoughtful discourse around cinema and its future. How will we identify the thinkers who will lead us forward, how do we help inculcate the right values into the coming debates about the medium's future and how might we inspire filmmakers to live up to these future possibilities? That, I think, will be the big challenge ahead.

Noah Cowan joins the San Francisco Film Society after five years at the helm of TIFF Bell Lightbox, the landmark cinema museum space in Toronto where he served as the facility’s founding Artistic Director. There he was responsible for the creative and artistic vision for the multi-purpose film venue and home of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). During his tenure, he curated many critically-acclaimed exhibitions and installations, including showcases of work by such diverse figures as David Cronenberg, Grace Kelly and visual artists Yang Fudong and Candice Breitz, as well as major retrospectives related to the history of Chinese cinema and the Indian superstar Raj Kapoor. He was also responsible for a large educational portfolio, including the TIFF Cinematheque, the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, several significant learning programs for students of all ages and large-scale collaborations between film and visual arts institutions around the world.

Cowan has had a long history with TIFF, beginning as a programmer for the Midnight Madness program in 1989, which remains one of the Festival’s most popular offerings. He subsequently curated major national cinema retrospectives on India and Japan for the organization, becoming a recognized new voice in contemporary international film programming by the mid-1990s. From 2004–08 Cowan was Codirector of the Toronto International Film Festival, alongside TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling. During Cowan’s tenure, the TIFF grew to become a world-leading public festival and marketplace as well as a daring innovator with recent initiatives such as the celebrated citywide meeting of the visual arts and cinema, Future Projections.

From 1997–2004 Cowan worked in New York City, where he cofounded Cowboy Pictures, a pioneering distributor of award-winning international art house films. In 2002, Cowan founded the Global Film Initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to worldwide understanding through film. In partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, the foundation funded, acquired, created, and distributed educational material for socially meaningful cinema from the developing world.