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Hollywood by the bay: Scary Cow

Scary Cow

One Sunday this last July, I spent a day with the Scary Cow.

It was entertaining, enlightening, and not at all frightening.

You might ask: What is this cow and why is it scary? The image that captures your attention, right? And therein lies its story: because San Francisco’s Scary Cow Indie Film Co-op is in the business of images — the more powerful the better.

With a history of 23 of its own local film festivals, Scary Cow members have produced films that have screened at festivals around the country. I went to its Round 23 Fest at the Castro, and came away a fan of both the organization and the creativity it fosters. Thrilled to discover another reason to make me glad San Francisco is my new hometown, I admit I just love knowing about something called Scary Cow. How often do you get to say those two words together?

Scary Cow is open to everyone of any skill level. Its mission is “to build a film community that actively learns to make better films by making films.” Run by its members, any money it makes goes back into members’ hands in the form of screenings, individual film budgets, classes, and more. In its seven-year history, individual members have made over 250 films with the $200,000 they’ve managed to distribute to those members. And every movie is guaranteed a showing at one of their Castro festivals. A good deal, I’d say, whether you’ve shot your film with the best cameras available or with your own cell phone. I saw some of both. If a Scary Cow member makes it, they’ll show it.

And if you buy a ticket, you’ll get to see 20 movies of varying lengths, plus attend a unique after-party. It may not require formal dress or be catered by Wolfgang Puck, but it’s uniquely San Francisco and a lot of fun: I got to meet the dog that starred in one of my favorite festival movies!

On that July Sunday, I strolled over to the Castro and dove out of the bright day into the cavernous dark of the old theater. I could have had popcorn, but full from lunch, I opted for the festival voting ballot instead. An accompanying pamphlet asked us to vote for favorites — prizes would be awarded at the end of the day and our votes counted. Two minutes were allowed after each film to write our impressions, but house lights never came up enough to allow us to see what we were writing, so my notes look like a scrappy treasure map to some obscure island, but I can make out enough to let you in on why I had such a good time.

The first thing we were treated to? P.A.M., “popcorn at the movies,” a two-minute cautionary tale about what happens when one rude, movie-going guy does inappropriate things with his crunchy treat. Next came The Dog (the first one I put a checkmark by, because it was sweet and well shot). Forgive Our Taxes was a documentary filled with polemic about the injustices of taxation, and the music video Over My Shoulder had sex, violence and gorgeous actors. Another vote cast. Sophia skillfully scared us (hello horror genre), but MaMa Tang, a tale about an Asian family and its displaced matriarch made me cry. So that got a vote — I love to cry at movies. Up next: Train Ride (one of those obviously shot with a cell phone), and Shining Stars, an ad for a local dance studio.

But then came The Ten Plagues by the witty Serena Shulman, and watch out for her, because she has a future in “the biz,” as my New York City agent used to say. I won’t summarize (my column is too short for a review), but look for The Ten Plagues: A Comedy at and you’ll catch the drift. As much as I love to cry at movies, I love to cry while laughing even more. And this 10-minute delight made me do that. I’m happy to report that Shulman’s film won some top prize money toward her next longer film.

Many other delights came, as the day wore on, but just know this: You can be part of Scary Cow, either as filmmaker or audience. All you do is go to and get informed. Attend one of their introductory meetings, and you may even learn where the name Scary Cow came from.

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