Fest director aims to sidestep financial slowdown

In the past five years, under the leadership of Roger Durling, the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival has caught the attention of Hollywood. This year is no different.

Celebrities including Oscar hopefuls Kate Winslet, Mickey Rourke, Penelope Cruz and David Fincher will be feted during the 24th edition of the fest, unspooling a month prior to the Academy Awards and starting on the day nominations are announced — today.

As usual, the 11-day fest’s sked features an artistically diverse slate of 200-plus independent films from America and 41 other countries, encompassing categories including Latino; surf and extreme sports; and documentary. It also offers various industry-related panel discussions as well as a student screenwriting competition and a family film section with a special focus for children.

But unlike previous years, Durling had to add one more task to his to-do list in order to make it all happen: survive the economic crisis.

“We had to be more aggressive than ever before about tickets sales, advertising and sponsorships because we were concerned that otherwise we would get hit badly,” the fest director explains. “I’m actually scared to talk about it because I fear that someone is going to pull the rug out from under me.”

So far that hasn’t happened, primarily because Durling dealt with the dwindling economy with the same dedication and creativity that he brought to the festival when he took over as director six years ago.

Instead of depending on one or two underwriting sponsors, this year the fest is being backed by additional smaller sponsorships along with a little extra help from Lucky Brand Jeans and Chopin Vodka.

Worried about filling theater seats, Durling redefined the way the fest sells tickets.

“We started this campaign where people can buy tickets early at 20% off, which we have never done before, and we promoted it heavily.”

Discount rates and “far more” online ads paid off, he says.

This year’s ticket sales, according to Durling, have surpassed last year’s, which will mark the sixth consecutive year the fest’s attendance numbers have risen.

Durling is expecting such a large turnout that in addition to last year’s supplemental 10 a.m. screenings, he has decided to include an extra 8 a.m. timeslot.

Ironically, Durling was initially nervous that submission numbers would be down this year and that he wouldn’t have as many films to screen.

“I thought that with the economy there would be (fewer) films being made,” he says. “But we actually received 1,000 more submissions than we got last year.”

What will not be a surprise at this year’s fest is a slew of high profile celebrities walking down the red carpet.

Incorporating the A-list quotient into the equation is a strategic move that, according to Durling, does not distract audiences from the fest’s unfamiliar fare.

“Celebrities bring attention,” he says. “We get our press because of their names, and in return we get coverage not just for the stars but for all of the films we feature.”

And luring celebrities to the coastal town in the midst of award-season hoopla doesn’t seem to be a problem: With its proximity to Los Angeles, and with numerous residents who are Academy members, Santa Barbara is an obvious stop for the stars, says public relations maven Tony Angellotti.

“Its such a lovely setting and they run it in such a genial way that I think that that, together with the fact that the timing is so perfect and its proximity to L.A. makes (the festival) something that is, if not essential, a no-brainer to (participate in),” Angellotti says. “Whether or not it affects change is the debate, but it certainly provides exposure, and, for the moment, it has solidified its value to the studios.”

The fest’s reach does have its limits, however.

“It’s too early to tell, but I don’t think that you reach the same audience out of Santa Barbara as you do at other festivals,” Angellotti says. “It’s not national breakout publicity like at Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. It’s primarily a regional festival.”

Local or not, with just weeks to go until Oscar night, SBIFF is one press op that stars likely won’t be willing to skip.

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