BAMPFA Mourns the Passing of PFA Director Emeritus Tom Luddy (1943-2023)

Tom Luddy, the celebrated film producer, curator, and festival director who led BAMPFA’s film program during its formative years, has passed away at the age of 79. He died peacefully in Berkeley on February 13, 2023 following a long illness. 

"Tom's vision to connect our audiences with the greatest filmmakers of our time is one that we enthusiastically continue, and now, more than ever, will uphold his legacy by investing in the preservation of film and the cinematic experience as an artform within BAMPFA," said BAMPFA’s Executive Director, Julie Rodrigues Widholm.

“Tom Luddy was a true ambassador of cinema, who touched the lives of filmmakers and industry professionals around the world,” said Susan Oxtoby, BAMPFA’s Director of Film and Senior Film Curator. “He put Berkeley on the cultural map and set the high bar of exhibition standards for his beloved Pacific Film Archive that we follow to this day.”

A towering figure in the independent film community for nearly six decades, Luddy leaves behind an indelible legacy, both through his myriad professional accomplishments and his role as a close friend and creative collaborator with some of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the twentieth century. He is best known for his decades of leadership at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, which he co-founded with Bill and Stella Pence and James Card in 1974 and has since become one of the world’s most important and influential launchpads for contemporary cinema. Luddy also had a distinguished run as a film producer and executive, including a long tenure at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studio where he championed projects by Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog, Agnieszka Holland, Chris Marker, Paul Schrader, and many other important directors.

But it was in Berkeley that Luddy first established himself as a major influence in the world of arthouse cinema, starting as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley where he ran multiple student film societies and then as a collaborator with Sheldon Renan—the noted curator, archivist, and scholar who became the Pacific Film Archive’s founding director in 1971. In one of their early partnerships, Luddy worked with Renan to mount the first West Coast retrospective of the French New Wave luminary Jean-Luc Godard, who visited UC Berkeley in 1968 as part of a North American tour that Luddy co-organized.

Following brief stints at the New York film distributor Brandon Films and the Telegraph Repertory Cinema in Berkeley, Luddy was appointed in 1972 to become the director of programming at the Pacific Film Archive, which had been incorporated into what was then called the University Art Museum (now BAMPFA). Luddy invigorated the curatorial program at the young organization, drawing on his growing network of contacts in the film community to bring internationally established filmmakers to Berkeley—among them Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jean Eustache, Milos Forman, Nicholas Ray, and Glauber Rocha. In 1975, Luddy succeeded Renan as Director of the PFA, charged with developing a sustainable financial model and ambitious programming strategy for an organization that Renan himself had described as “put together with spit, chewing gum, [and] good intentions.”

Luddy’s leadership of the Pacific Film Archive was marked by transformative growth and change for the institution, which assumed a prominent position in the vibrant international film community of the 1970s even as it built new connections with the Bay Area’s counterculture-infused film scene and the intellectual ferment of the UC Berkeley campus. In partnership with the trailblazing film curator Albert Johnson, Luddy led an initiative to integrate the PFA’s film program into the burgeoning cinema studies curriculum at Cal, nurturing a new generation of young people who were among the first to study film in an academic context. He also oversaw a significant expansion of the PFA Collection, securing hundreds of celluloid film prints from around the world that today form the backbone of the museum’s collection of eighteen thousand films and videos. As his colleagues at the University Art Museum were embracing distinctively West Coast art movements like Funk Art, Luddy championed the Bay Area’s thriving community of experimental and avant-garde filmmakers, launching the weekly Avant-Garde/Independent Film Program and hiring Edith Kramer, a film curator at SFMOMA (and Luddy’s eventual successor), to run it. And through it all, the parade of arthouse luminaries continued to circulate through the PFA Theater at Luddy’s invitation, with guest visits by Chantal Akerman, Les Blank, David Lynch, Errol Morris, and many others.

Luddy left the Pacific Film Archive in 1980 to join Francis Ford Coppola at American Zoetrope, where he enjoyed an extraordinary run as an independent film executive. His many distinguished credits as a producer during this period include Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear (1987), Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987), and Agnieszka Holland‘s The Secret Garden (1993). His stature also continued to grow in the film festival world, where in addition to his decades of leadership at Telluride he served at various times on the selection committees and juries of the New York Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Cannes Film Festival among others. 

A resident of Berkeley for most of his adult life, Luddy was a prominent figure in the city’s thriving arts and culture community and remained a frequent guest at BAMPFA until his final years. His impact on Berkeley extended to its world-renowned culinary scene, where he played a key role in the opening of his former partner Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse—which she named after a character in a French film to which Luddy had introduced her.

Since the news of Luddy’s passing became public, tributes have poured in from some of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola called his death “a great loss to the world of cinema”, and Werner Herzog—whose first feature film, Signs of Life, screened at the Pacific Film Archive under Luddy’s directorship—praised Luddy as “my friend and guardian” and “a director’s director [who] connected filmmakers worldwide.” Martin Scorsese, who visited the PFA in 1974 at Luddy’s invitation, released the following statement:

“Tom Luddy was a pivotal figure in the world of cinema. As a programmer and a curator, at the Pacific Film Archive, the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival, he was instrumental in finding new filmmakers of promise, forgotten filmmakers of the past, and bringing us all together, bridging every distance, geographical and historical. He found films that had remained hidden for decades and reintroduced them to the world. If it weren’t for Tom, the extraordinary I Am Cuba would probably still be locked away in a vault in Russia. He also produced films that really counted, by Werner Herzog, Paul Schrader, Norman Mailer, Jean-Luc Godard, Barbet Schroeder, Agnieszka Holland and others. Tom lived and breathed cinema, and he was truly irreplaceable. The best way to honor him would be to follow his example.”