Over five years at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the cinema museum space in Toronto, Cowan supervised a $5-million annual budget and a staff of 30. He learned how to lure moviegoers to first-run programming, and curated a number of exhibitions including Grace Kelly and visual artists Yang Fudong and Candice Breitz, as well as major retrospectives related to the history of Chinese cinema and the Indian superstar Raj Kapoor. He and Handling curated the David Cronenberg exhibit that recently closed at the Lightbox's HSBC Gallery at the Lightbox. Cowan was also responsible for a large educational portfolio, including the TIFF Cinematheque, the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, several student learning programs and large-scale collaborations between film and visual arts institutions around the world.
From 1997–2004 in New York, Cowan logged some real-world distribution experience at Cowboy Pictures, releasing international arthouse films, but returned to the Toronto Festival in 2004. In 2002, Cowan founded the Global Film Initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to worldwide understanding through film. In partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, the foundation funded, acquired, created, and distributed educational material for socially meaningful cinema from the developing world. He moved over to the new TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2008.
Cowan joins the San Francisco Film Society—now in its 57th year—during a period of expansion in each of its three main program areas: exhibition, education and filmmaker services. The San Francisco International Film Festival is the longest-running film festival in the Americas. Additional year-round exhibition programs include a Fall Season slate of specialized film series featuring the best work from France, Italy, Switzerland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the San Francisco Bay Area, and a range of public and members’ screenings and events.
The SFFS Education department produces year-round media literacy programs to over 10,000 K–12 learners, in addition to college and university programs that introduce students to careers in filmmaking. SFFS recently celebrated the launch of FilmEd, a new online community and toolkit that provides curricula and media to facilitate classroom instruction and connects filmmakers and educators across the globe.
Filmmaker360, the Film Society’s filmmaker services program, supports emerging independent filmmakers nationwide and oversees one of the largest film grant programs in the country, dispersing nearly $1 million annually to incubate and support innovative films and filmmakers. Recent Filmmaker360 success stories include recent festival hits such as Ira Sach’s "Love is Strange," Kat Candler’s "Hellion," Jesse Moss’ "The Overnighters," Destin Cretton’s "Short Term 12," Ryan Coogler’s "Fruitvale Station," and Zachary Heinzerling’s Oscar-nominated "Cutie and the Boxer" as well as Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 Best Picture nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild."