Essential SF Q&A: George Rush

By Pam Grady

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

It takes a village to make a movie, and while most people think about cast and crew, there is another component to moviemaking: the lawyers. They take care of the contracts, conflicts, and other issues that arise to ensure a production goes smoothing. Independent filmmakers in the Bay Area and beyond have come to rely on the services of San Francisco native George Rush. He has built his practice on their needs and his love of film has also expanded his career to include repping films in need of distribution and producing such films as Ping Pong Summer, Entertainment, and FilmHouse resident Boots Riley’s upcoming Sorry to Bother You. Independent filmmakers have come to rely on Rush’s legal expertise and passion for their work. His work is essential to them, and to SF.

Q: How does one go from a law degree to such a specialized field?

George Rush: Before I went to law school, I produced a kind of bad independent film. It’s wasn’t very good. It’s funny, I see this film over and over. It’s about someone who doesn’t know what he wants to do after college. OK, whoop-de-do. I made it. It was a big failure. It wasn’t very good, lots of half-formed thoughts. But I kind of enjoyed the scene. I was exposed to, just locally, the Film Arts Foundation and the local films that were being made in the early-mid ‘90s.

I went to law school, planning to be a lawyer. My interest was in government and politics and that area of law, but while I was there, my interest continued to be drawn toward film. I consulted on a few films. When I finished school, I realized my heart definitely wasn’t in being a corporate lawyer or a government lawyer or politics. I really liked film and I liked how film could impact people. I kind of threw out my shingle, “I want to do independent film law,” not really knowing what that meant. When I first started, there were some lean times, those first few years. One great thing about the Bay Area, then and now, is I feel like people are very collaborative and very supportive of people’s creative endeavors. There wasn’t really anyone dedicated to film in the Bay Area, but the people that kind of dabbled in it were very generous with their time and experience. They really helped me out a lot, Peter Buchanan, Richard Lee, and guys like that.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

After a number of years, I built up a client base and I was off. From there, I always felt like being in San Francisco was kind of a disadvantage, because the industry isn’t here. And most filmmakers outside of LA or New York are at a disadvantage, because they are so removed from the business and the industry. They’re just like, ‘I want to tell my story. I don’t know anything about that. I’ll just go to Sundance.’ Obviously, I knew there was more to it than that. So, I really tried to make relationships with the main sales reps for indie films at the time, my thought being if I had a good film, I could kind of shepherd it to them. Then those guys could help these guys with the business stuff.

I did that for a number of years, and then Barry Jenkins’ film Medicine for Melancholy, I sent it to those guys and no one was really interested in it. And I thought it was great. In retrospect, I think they weren’t interested in it, because traditionally, African American films are a harder sell, even though no one said that outright. But I was like, ‘I’ll sell this. How hard can it be?’ And it wasn’t hard, because it was a great film. So, I was like, ‘Selling films is easy!’ From there, for a few years, in addition to lawyering, I acted as a producer’s rep and helped get distribution for films. As I worked on a lot of films under a million dollars and generally under $500,000 and some of those films are really fantastic—Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine is a real standout—but there was a sort of change in the industry happening. Traditionally, independent films were sold by some very boutique people, John Schloss, people like that. The agencies, in my mind, weren’t as involved, but in the mid-2000s the independent film business, in a way, collapsed. No one really knew how to deal with digital. What films were selling for was a lot less. When I first started, an independent film selling for two million dollars was not common, but not uncommon for a Sundance film. Now that’s extremely rare. A lot of the traditional players left and a lot of the agencies came in…I found myself only being able to work with films that didn’t have talent, because the agencies wouldn’t rep those films.

So, I decided maybe I can produce something that has talent, then I’ll be able to rep it. It was sort of a backward way to look at getting into producing. I’d produced a few documentaries, but that’s kind of a different thing. I produced Ping Pong Summer with Susan Sarandon and Lea Thompson. I was the co-rep on that. But after doing that, I was like, ‘Wait, I feel like I enjoy producing a lot more than doing the sales stuff.’ So, I got a little more involved in that, and at the same time, maintaining my law practice. I feel like trying to be a full-time independent producer is like buying a lottery ticket. You have to be extremely lucky or independently wealthy or have a day job. People ask, ‘Are you becoming a producer?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m a lawyer and sometimes I produce.’ But I really enjoy that.

Q: When filmmakers come to you as a lawyer, what are the typical things they are consulting about?

GR: I work on documentaries and on narratives. On documentaries, usually it’s more than one filmmaker, so it’s figuring out how these two people are going to work together. And a documentary takes years and years and years, so it’s like their baby. I’ve had custody battles over the documentary when there’s been breakups. So, it’s kind of addressing that. And really a big part of it is clearance, clearing all this footage and fair use.

With narrative films, usually I’m the attorney for the production, so I do the financing, the crew and cast contracts, and I clear all the intellectual properties. Those are the three big areas…As someone who produces, too, I feel like I’m very aware of the business and what’s happening and what budgets work, so I try to bring that to the table, too. A lot of times people will come to me with plans that don’t make sense or budgets that aren’t realistic.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: In terms of your client base, how many are even based in the Bay Area? Or are they mostly from elsewhere? Clearly, someone like Michael Tully (Ping Pong Summer) isn’t local.

GR: They’re from all over. There used to be more films being made here is the big thing. I’d say half are here.  And a lot are in Brooklyn and Austin and there are some LA people. I think a lot of it, too, is I like these little films that are maybe a little off-kilter, too. I appreciate that. I get a lot of referrals from people who’ll say, ‘This guy is a kindred spirit who’ll appreciate your taste.’

Q: What keeps you in the Bay Area?

GR: I’m from here. My family’s here. I love it here. I really love being in San Francisco. I feel like the scene in San Francisco has changed a lot in the past five years, much less ten or 20. But it’s always changing. It’s good to fight against some change, but change is also inevitable. But I still think that there a lot of things here that make making films here great. I think a lot of it is a legacy both from activist-type filmmaking, particularly in documentary, but also experimental filmmaking, really looking at it as a visual form. I think that culture continues to live on and I think the people who have figured out a way to make it work here or who come here are still champions of that…I think it’s important to continue to have an alternative to LA and New York.

I feel like, career-wise, I’m an ambitious person. I want to do things, but I don’t want to be involved in a big studio film. That’s not the type of film I’m interested in…Part of the reason I produce is because I want to make films that I actually want to see that don’t exist. I think this is a pretty supportive environment. I think things like the Film Society, BAVC, and other arts organizations continue to try to cultivate these things. I love it here.

Q: How does it feel to be Essential SF?

GR:  I like being part of this community and so I appreciate some recognition. I like seeing the people I work with be recognized much more. To me, the measure of my success is a measure of a film’s success, and that’s usually the director. I like seeing the directors and the writers I work with get the accolades. I feel a little almost embarrassed, but it feels good. 

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 Peter Bratt, film organization Center for Asian American Media, festival photographer Pamela Gentile, documentary filmmaker Carrie Lozano, entertainment attorney George Rush, and film programmer Joel Shepard—were honored at the 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.