Through the first dozen years of its existence, the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival has been known as a cozy small-town fest, an amiable event marked by attractive programming presented at a relaxed pace. One thing it decidedly was not, however, was cutting edge.
With the 13th edition set to unspool Thursday with the West Coast preem of the Coen brothers’ boisterous new comedy “The Big Lebowski,” the festival begins a new era with vet Hollywood producer Renee Missel at the helm.
That the tenor of the fest would be different was apparent as soon as the lineup was announced: It has a theme — that the early ’70s repped the last great era in American filmmaking — and a number of promising American indie titles will be premiered; also, the seminars and tributes are timely and alluring, and sidebars focus on things like top new Iranian titles, wild Hong Kong actioners and “far out films.”
According to Missel, this is just a start, a dip of the toe into the sort of adventurous programming she would like to pursue further. “We’re all interested in moving the festival on to the next level,” she said. “This year we have to show that we’re different. Next year, we would like to have more world premieres, more acquisitions people up, and more for them to see.”
When event co-founder and artistic director Phyllis de Picciotto decided that the 1997 fest would be her last (she remains on the festival board), board president Dr. Joseph Pollock chose Missel, who had organized some seminars for the fest, as her successor.
Producer of such films as “Resurrection,” “The Main Event” and “Nell,” and a seven-year Santa Barbara resident, Missel was intrigued by the challenge, but agreed to take it on one condition: “I thought this festival was delightful and lovely, but I’d have to make it bigger, and if they didn’t want bigger they’d have to get someone else.”
Getting up to speed
Never a regular on the international fest scene, Missel, who signed on last June, quickly brought herself up to speed, tracking films from all over the world, attending the Toronto fest and hiring two programming associates — Colleen McNichols, a former Universal acquisitions exec who specializes in U.S. indies, and Rose Kuo, a programmer from the Mill Valley Film Festival with a deep knowledge of Asian cinema.
Missel’s attitude going in was, “You have to have a profile if you’re going to have an important festival, because there are so many of them. I think that, in the past, Santa Barbara was being programmed for an older audience. But the old guard, they’re in a minority now, and I said, ‘Let’s go for a younger audience.’ There are lots of students here, and a large Latino audience. Santa Barbara is not an old-fashioned, quaint little town anymore.
“Ultimately, I could see the festival as a mix of Telluride with a little of the Sundance buzz. It could never become the market that Sundance is, but it could grab some of the films that miss out on Sundance or come right after,” Missel said.
The only problem on that front is that Missel found herself in direct competition for titles with two up-and-coming indie-oriented events — the South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas, which kicks off March 13 during Santa Barbara’s second weekend, and the L.A. Indie Fest, which takes place in April.
Driving up the coast
Missel is attracting any number of industry personalities to make the two-hour drive up the coast. Jodie Foster will receive the “Modern Master” award Saturday night, and Julie Christie, John Schlesinger, Robert Towne and Bob Hoskins will receive tributes.
Towne’s new picture, “Without Limits,” from Warner Bros., will receive its world preem March 15.
Comparing her present job to her previous work, Missel said that, “After just having been a producer, what I’m doing now is like being a producer and director all at once. I’m enjoying that at the moment.”