By Pam Grady
Born out of the activism of the 1960s, California Newsreel, based in San Francisco, has been producing and distributing films with African American and African themes for nearly five decades and has long been a go-to source for films dealing with racial and social justice. Among its catalog are the films of the late Bay Area documentarian Marlon Riggs. Among its own productions are Race – The Power of an Illusion, a 2003 three-part series on race in the United States; BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, a portrait of the poet, playwright and activist that recently screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival and is the closing night selection of the upcoming New York African Diaspora International Film Festival; and The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation, which investigates the connection between inequality and the lack of investment in children and families. California Newsreel co-director Cornelius Moore talks about this essential Bay Area institution, its mission and the challenges it faces in an increasingly online world.
San Francisco Film Society: Who founded California Newsreel?
Cornelius Moore: It was probably a collective of people. I don’t know the names of the people. No one who is there now was there then. There were Newsreels in several places around the country. There was one in New York, Boston and other places. They were basically the media arm of the movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Black liberation movement, all kinds of left-wing initiatives.
SFFS: How has the organization changed over the past nearly half century?
CM: Then it was largely production, as well as people who were organizers who would go and show their films and have a discussion about what was going on. I think the change was, for much of the time I’ve been at Newsreel, there wasn’t production. It became much more of a distribution organization, but in the last 12 years of so, one of my colleagues, Larry Adelman, has really gotten involved more in production. What we saw was some of the subject matter people were asking us about, we got privy to that, because we would supply the films, and those films weren’t being produced.
SFFS: You distribute Marlon Riggs’s work. How did that relationship develop?
CM: It was ’86, when Marlon finished Ethnic Notions. We started distributing that. At that point, we were distributing films, anti-apartheid films, South Africa Media Center films about the quality of working life, media works, even though the origins of Newsreel was dealing with racism, the Black Panther films [California Newsreel’s first two productions, in 1969, were made in collaboration with the Black Panther Party], etc.—I mean, US racism. I think what happened was Marlon sent it to us and we really liked it. We thought, ‘We’ll try and see how it does.’ And it did really well. I will take some credit for that, because I was doing promotion of it. Marlon was surprised, ‘Is this check right? Really?’
At that point, our approach was we should get more films dealing with African-American history and related films. We would mail out catalogs. Ethnic Notions did really, really well. It came out at a time when there was an opening, at least in the university world, for films dealing with multiculturalism. We said, ‘Marlon, you should do a sequel or something.’ We gave him a little money to write a proposal and he decided he wanted to something on television. That project was Color Adjustment. Tongues Untied was a whole different thing. We ended up not distributing that until later, because it was more experimental work. Because of the market we were in, we were focusing on more conventional films. But we still had a good relationship with Marlon through the whole time. With his final work, Black is… Black Ain’t, we were involved in that. Then it made sense after a while, ‘Well, we should have all his work.’
SFFS: You started with California Newsreel in 1981. How have you seen the organization evolve?
CM: I think we’ve had to deal with technology in a way that we didn’t think that we had to, because of streaming. We’ve had to discern what our market is, and play with it back and forth. With some of our African films, we did theatrical releases. We had to contend with the consumer market, the home video market, and the changes in the market.
Initially, in our agreements, we would ask for exclusive rights. We’re less and less able to do that. Because the producers, they maybe want to do some distribution themselves, ‘Hey, I have a website I’ll make it available that way.’ And they’ll also want to be able to have consumer home video deals for digital rentals. We’ve started putting things on Vimeo for digital rentals ourselves.
There’s a bigger questioned involved, since the distribution model we’ve been involved with has changed, the revenue stream is less, so we’re having to contend with how long we’re going to be around. We have to grapple with that. What does that mean? That would probably require new blood. The other thing is it’s not just producers who want rights, it’s also broadcasters who are funders. PBS wants streaming rights. We have to contend more and more with the rights questions than we have before. We get the film, we do the promotion and everything, but now the negotiations to acquire a title have become much more complicated.
One of the other things is because we’re dealing with social issues; before, if we got a title about the anti-apartheid movement, for example, we could take a while. People’s expectations were that we’d get something and it would have a longer life. I think there’s more immediacy now and social movements have more access to media on the web, the shorts produced. For example, the movement against police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, the environmental movement, all these things have access to media that’s produced maybe quasi-professionally, film fest professionally, that they can use immediately. We’ve talked about that question, but much of what we do, including our last production, takes a long time. We’re not producing things immediately. It’s a quandary. In a way, I would like to be more of an active resource for the burgeoning social movements now. It’s something we’ve thought about, but haven’t come to any conclusion on how to resolve it.
SFFS: What brought you to California Newsreel to begin with?
CM: I’m from the Philadelphia area and worked with a place called the Neighborhood Film Project where we showed films and were a community resource. I ended up there for six years and I was ready to leave that and try to live someplace other than the Philadelphia area. We’d rented films from Newsreel before and I knew that they were looking for some to promote their anti-apartheid, Southern Africa Media Center project. We started to have discussions about that when I came out to visit. They needed somebody to promote. They also needed somebody to staff the office and take the orders while the other people were working on a production—this was in the early ‘80s—which became The Business of America, a film about Reaganomics, supply-side economics.
SFFS: What do you think makes California Newsreel and San Francisco such a perfect fit?
CM: The history of social-change movements in the Bay Area, I think that’s a major thing. And there’s a community of people in independent media, social change media, in documentary, particularly, where it’s a very comfortable fit. Los Angeles is driven by the industry, New York is—I’m not sure what it is—but I think it would be harder to do what we do anywhere else.
Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker and curator Craig Baldwin, longtime film distributor California Newsreel, Mill Valley Film Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton, journalist Michael Fox and filmmakers Jenni Olson and Jennifer Phang—will be honored at this annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.