Named in honor of Film Festival founder Irving M. “Bud” Levin, this is a one-time-only award given on the occasion of the Festival’s 50th anniversary to a cinematic pioneer with close ties to the Bay Area. No one figure is more deserving of the award than George Lucas.
By Andy Bailey
Like so many American cultural modes, contemporary blockbuster cinema has its precursor in the Bay Area, in whose creative cradle was borne the immortal catchphrase “May the Force be with you.” Those words, first uttered and heard in the summer of 1977, transformed moviegoing and moviemaking forever, as audiences of all ages lined up for hours in advance to behold a new kind of major motion picture, one rooted in mythic storytelling traditions and rife with futuristic special effects.
Just as Star Wars altered the landscape of cinema, its creator, George Lucas, has established an even more potent legacy that is particularly beneficial to, and appreciated by, the San Francisco Bay Area. After all, Star Wars—the most successful independent film of all time—was conceived right here. Despite being distributed by a major studio, the film was created almost entirely outside Hollywood by its director, cowriter and executive producer and his team of special effects technicians. So intent was Lucas on steering clear of the big studios that, following the film’s unprecedented success, he established Skywalker Ranch, a production base nestled in the natural splendor of Nicasio, more than 400 miles north of L.A.
Before there was Skywalker Ranch there was American Zoetrope, the production environment launched by Lucas and his cohort Francis Ford Coppola to benefit filmmakers seeking a liberating working environment outside the studio system. We see Zoetrope’s legacy in any number of visual effects outfits in and around San Francisco, from animation innovators Pixar and The Orphanage to Lucas’s own Industrial Light and Magic facility and LucasFilm Ltd. headquarters in The Presidio.
It goes without saying that Lucas helped relocate movie magic to the Bay Area, transforming the region economically, creatively and even visually. San Francisco residents in particular are reminded of the cultural imprint of his sci-fi saga whenever they glimpse the shipping container cranes—inspiration for the wondrous and terrifying Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back—looming over Mission Bay.
From beloved early features THX 1138 and American Graffiti to Star Wars, its two sequels and three prequels. Through his production and screenwriting work on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and its own sequels—including a long-awaited fourth installment due next year—Lucas’s filmmaking legacy is unparalleled in scope and resonance. Reinventing movie magic from the ground up, thrilling an entire generation with his space Westerns and serialized adventures, revolutionizing the visual effects community and forever changing that way we see motion pictures, Lucas is the Bay Area’s—if not cinema’s—ultimate backyard visionary. His name and accomplishments are fittingly honored with the Film Society’s one-time-only Irving M. Levin Award.
Irving M. Levin
Irving M. “Bud” Levin became a film buff at an early age. “He was very intense in everything he did. He loved the movies,” his widow Irma said in an interview for the Festival’s oral history project. “And that was his whole life. Everything was the movies.” His family ran a chain of movie theaters where he worked as an usher while in high school, and before long he was heading up the business.
Levin loved the city as much as he loved cinema, and in 1957 got the idea that San Francisco deserved to have a world-class film festival, so he set out to create one. It seemed crazy to some: creating a film festival to rival the great festivals of the day—Cannes, Venice, Berlin—here in San Francisco, with little or no public support.
But with his charm, inexhaustible energy and flair for showmanship, Bud managed to do it. He traveled the world and booked the greatest films of the day. With his personal magnetism and gift of persuasion he gained the endorsement of the city’s Art Commission and the participation of San Francisco society, as well as film critics and scholars. The mayor, the governor and the publishers of all major Bay Area dailies joined the honorary board of directors. Soon, the Festival was awarded an “A” ranking by the international ruling body of film festivals.
Alongside his gift for building a profitable business, Bud also manifested a strong philanthropic streak. He funded the Festival’s first eight years largely out of his own pocket. Many years after he left the running of the Festival to others, he explained to a journalist why he founded the Festival: “It was my gift to the city.”
With his dynamism, his love of cinema and San Francisco and his talent for motivating others, Bud Levin was one of a kind.
Andy Bailey is the San Francisco–based author of the forthcoming Taschen volume Cinema Now.