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(c) Michael Saechang/Flickr
(c) Michael Saechang/Flickr

A Brief History of San Francisco International Film Festival

Picture of Deanna Morgado
Updated: 1 February 2018

As the longest-running film festival in the Americas, the San Francisco International Film Festival has quite a history. Before the festival, San Francisco’s art scene once struggled, but the SFIFF appeared and changed all that.

The San Francisco International Film Festival was founded in 1957 by Irving “Bud” Levin. As a film exhibitor and philanthropist, Bud started the SFIFF to secure San Francisco’s mark on the international arts. Cinema wasn’t completely accepted as an art form by the locals at the time, but it was Bud’s hope that this new idea of a film festival would change that.

The very first festival was quite the success, screening foreign films like Akira Kurosawa‘s Throne of Blood and Satyajit Ray‘s Pather Panchali. The SFIFF played a huge role in exposing locals to international films.


Watching a blank screen | © Kenneth Lu/Flickr

Although the American audiences seemed to completely fall for the festival, the movie-making Hollywood studios weren’t as excited. In fact, the festival struggled in its early years because of lack of funding from the studios. The reasoning behind their refusal was fear of the festival and the new appeal of foreign films, which could steal the spotlight away from the prestigious Oscars.

It wasn’t until two years after the first SFIFF in 1959 that a major American motion picture, Henry King‘s Beloved Infidel, screened at the festival. This opened the floodgates and led the San Francisco International Film Festival to being one of the most highly-regarded film festivals.

Over its life and following Bud’s legacy, the SFIFF has changed hands quite a few times, and is now officially run by the San Francisco Film Society. It showcases cultural trends in the international film and video production scene, highlighting works that haven’t been distributed in the U.S.

The festival is held annually in the spring and runs for two weeks, presenting around 200 films from over 50 countries every year. SFIFF’s lineup also includes live performances, artist guest speakers, international competitions, and more.

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival will be held April 4-17 2018 in the Bay Area.