17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival

by Brad on July 16, 2012

I spent the end of the week at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which is, as far as I understand it, the largest silent movie event in the United States. The program covered four days, and I ended up seeing eleven movies, one lecture, and a number of Felix the cat cartoons. The festival does a remarkable job of both brining in the best possible accompaniment, and keeping the audience up to date on the latest news in what is actually a full blown industry attempting to keep silent movies alive.

And with that came both good news and bad news.  The opening night movie was the recent $700,000 restoration of Wings. Very few film get the $700,000 treatment, and the restored edition is predictably stunning, but according to the lady in charge of the restoration (who gave a talk on Friday), the return on investment has been poor. The restoration was done by Paramount pictures, who was the largest film company during the silent era, and likewise has the largest silent film library. We want them to restore more films, and unless people start buying more it’s unlikely to happen in any similar way to what is possible.

The very very good news is that there are widespread reports that silent films are getting more popular. A pianist which I met at the also excellent, though considerably smaller, Niles Film Festival, said that the number of silent film pianists have increased from eight to 80 in recent years. The SF festival also featured a number of performance groups which are working with silent films, including Mont Alto Film Orchestra, the Matti Bye Ensemble, and the Toychestra.

There are also a number of smaller festivals and online programs that were being advertised there, that indicate that silent film products are actually selling in decent enough numbers. Fliers were lying around for the Lawrence, Kansas silent film festival, and one of the major sponsors of the film was Fandor, a website for streaming films that prominently features silents. Silent film DVDs from Flicker Alley and Kino, as well as a number of recently published books were on sale, all indicating a decent market.

I am hoping to go over all the films I saw in more or less detail over the next few days, which should include:

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