Few cities can brag about iconic film scenes quite like San Francisco can. Whether it’s the car chase from Bullitt, Whoopi Goldberg filling a church choir with soul in Sister Act or The Rock saving an improbable number of lives during the Big One in San Andreas, the camera simply worships our unique cityscape.
Manijeh Fata, who Mayor London Breed appointed as the new executive director of Film SF last Friday, wants to expand on that cinematic legacy. A filmmaker in her own right, who has served as acting director for seven months, she now officially heads the entity that connects film crews with various city agencies, all while nurturing homegrown talent. Film SF is overseen by the 11-member Film Commission, which Fata also sits on; both are part of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. (The similarly named festival called SFFILM is unrelated.)
This city may hold sufficient appeal to get pummeled on screen over and over by tsunamis or intelligent apes, but what it lacks is a bankable star with the stature to redirect one production after another our way.
“Robin Williams was from here and raised a family here, and said, ‘I don’t want to travel, you’re going to come here and shoot here because this is where I am,’” Fata recounted to The Standard, ticking off films like Jack, Nine Months, and—of course—Mrs. Doubtfire.
Her job is to lure them. Fata insists that city bureaucracy is not the reason so many crews set up in Vancouver or Toronto. It’s a lack of sufficient incentives by the state of California, which has been outhustled since the early 2000s, spurring her office to make up the difference. The kicker is when films are nominally set in San Francisco, but dispatch crews here only for the “beauty shots,” while filming the actors in other locales. She’s there to help.
“I can tell you how to navigate to get the various approvals,” Fata told The Standard by phone. “We are the facilitator with a lot of city departments because we issue you the permit. I say, ‘This will be a challenge, and this is how you work around it,’ and have a successful shoot. It’s hopeful for a lot of people because they think it’s daunting. They feel really supported.”
To that end, she’s working with an independent filmmaker who’s shooting something “Silicon Valley-esque” in various locations in Downtown SF. Her office is also working with D’Arcy Drollinger, the owner of SoMa drag club Oasis, on securing stage space to turn his production Shit & Champagne into a feature. A city rebate program offers up to $600,000, which may not be attractive to major studios but may represent a sizable percentage of an indy’s budget.
Fata’s promotion had a rocky start—her predecessor, Susannah Greason Robbins, was effectively terminated last fall for her refusal to get vaccinated against Covid, citing religious objections—but Fata insists their relationship was strongly positive.
“Honestly, I worked extremely closely with Susannah and was her thought partner and adviser,” Fata says. “She trusted me on all things, on every major production.”
Those productions included The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Joe Talbot’s bittersweet 2019 love letter about a city gentrifying itself to pieces, and 2021’s The Matrix Resurrections—the fourth installment in that saga and a curious case of a future mayoral appointee shepherding a project involving that very same mayor. (London Breed had a cameo, as a character named “Calliope.”)
Citing the moment in Vertigo where Kim Novak’s character leaps into the Bay at Fort Point as her all-time favorite SF scene—it might be a tie with Mrs. Doubtfire setting her prosthetic breasts on fire—Fata grasps the magnitude of her position. She is, effectively, helping cement SF in the general public’s imagination, a history that runs from Lauren Bacall’s noirish sensuality in Dark Passage to the crew of the Starship Enterprise repopulating the Bay with humpback whales. Citing Ant-Man, Shang-Chi and Iron Man’s Tony Stark, she senses the possibility for much more.
“How many Marvel characters are native San Franciscans?” Fata asked.
Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]