Of all the festivals that occur during the increasingly elongated awards season, the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, with its starry tributes and panels, is the most closely aligned with the Academy’s anointed talent. Of this year’s 13 fest honorees, eight are associated with Oscar-nominated films. And for the wildly popular Directors on Directing symposium alone, all 14 participants over the past two years were drawn from Oscar-recognized works.
But while these sold-out events have given the festival a glitzy profile, organizers consider all this star power frosting on the cake. “Having these big celebrities and big panels is what we’ve created at the front of the establishment to lure customers in,” says Roger Durling, who is heading into his 11th year as the fest’s executive director. “But it’s our job that once you’ve walked in those doors, there’s got to be something else behind that to keep people, and our sponsors, coming back and growing.”
Durling and program director Michael Albright have amassed 156 films for the 29th edition, including 24 world premieres and 32 U.S. bows. This international fare is foraged from 60 countries (up from last year’s 49), drawing from such fests as Cannes, Toronto, Locarno, Karlovy Vary and Rome, and approximately 3,000 independent submissions via Withoutabox, the online submission service that caters to festivals and burgeoning filmmakers. “We take Withoutabox really seriously,” Albright says. “There’s a lot of really great films that haven’t premiered at festivals, including international films that are submitted. So that’s one obvious route.”
The programming reflects an environmentally conscious seaside community (oceanography doc “Mission Blue” is the opener) that also happens to be in the heart of wine country, with such sidebars as Screen Cuisine, from which audience award winner “Spinning Plates” was drawn last year, and To the Maxx, which appeals to the local surf culture. The Spanish/Latin American Cinema Features competition also reflects the city’s considerable Hispanic presence, which makes up roughly 30% of the population.
And while the beauty and proximity of Santa Barbara, a mere 90-minute drive from L.A., makes it an attractive lure for Hollywood players, there’s a significant filmmaking contingent that resides here at least part time (James Cameron, Ivan Reitman, Bob Zemeckis, Jeff Bridges and Oprah Winfrey are among the many A-listers with homes in S.B.) as well as three schools — UC Santa Barbara, the Brooks Institute and Santa Barbara City College — with film programs.
As such, the event’s growth has been dramatic during Durling’s tenure, with 75,000 attending over 10 days last year vs. the 25,000-30,000 that showed up in 2003. Also, acquisitions execs making the trip have more than doubled from 2013 to more than 50 expected this year.
But the truth of the matter is that this event is less about distribution deals, of which very few will be struck, than the pure festival experience, with most of the fare unlikely to end up in a theater near you. Durling, a self-professed movie junkie who dresses with metrosexual flair, likens attending SBIFF to a concert — an experience that will never be repeated in the same way, with the same talent present or with the same audience.
For his part, Albright, who once worked with Albert Maysles, sees the fest like Christo’s Gates installation in New York that Maysles documented. “The painting is Central Park and you’re in it,” he says. “Once it starts, you’re in the movie.”