With film festivals nearly as prolific as Starbucks outlets, only a few can really catch Hollywood’s eye. For the most part, the fortunate ones tend to be well-established markets far from the industry’s hub — in places like Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.
But there are exceptions; the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival, kicking off its 19th incarnation today; and the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, reveling in its 23rd iteration come Jan. 24, thrive close to the belly of the beast, and their success is at least partly due to that proximity.
Both communities have long been favored by celebs and moguls as nearby getaways. Indeed, a number even receive their mail, including Oscar ballots, there (30 in the Palm Springs area and another 70 in the Santa Barbara region).
Moreover, these festivals’ skeds — especially Palm Springs’ — dovetail ideally with awards-season balloting. And in recent years, several Palm Springs prizewinners have found themselves favored with Oscar noms not long after their desert close-ups.
Popular on Variety
“It’s more or less self-evident why it’s good for everybody,” says Ronni Chasen, durable Hollywood publicist whose PR firm handles Palm Springs’ annual awards gala. “The festivals celebrate movies in release and frequently awards contenders. The timing is perfect.”
Darryl Macdonald, director of the Palm Springs fest since late 2003, has been part of the film-fest world for 30 years and involved with Palm Springs since the fest’s inception. “Both studios and publicists in L.A. and New York utilize the festival as part of their strategy to gain nominations for their people, be they actors, directors, composers, what have you,” he says.
Such fests benefit from studios and stars taking the opportunity to perpetuate buzz, but they exist for other reasons.
“You have to realize that these festivals have programs that go beyond these events,” Chasen says. “Darryl Macdonald and (Santa Barbara fest exec) Roger Durling are first and foremost serious film curators and historians. Just look at the work they do all year long. They show all those foreign films and documentaries. They have seminars.”
Durling urges those who see Palm Springs and Santa Barbara purely as Oscar launchpads to reconsider such hasty assessments.
“Look beyond the surface and see that they have an incredible slate of foreign films,” he says, speaking of his Palm Springs colleagues in terms that could just as easily apply to his own fest. “There’s nothing wrong with capitalizing on what media and sponsors want: They want movie stars. But look beyond. You have to back that shiny cover with substance. And they’ve been doing that for years.”
Among the year-long highlights is Palm Springs’ annual festival of short films, which has occurred every August for the past 13 years. In addition, the Palm Springs Film Society often screens current Hollywood releases, usually followed by Q&As with talent, for its members.
That said, both fests do use awards to help lure a certain celebrity quotient to their respective sprocket operas. In Palm Springs, the accolades are handed out at a black-tie dinner Saturday night, one week before polls close for Oscar noms.
Santa Barbara dispenses its kudos differently. “We don’t have galas,” Durling says. “We have tributes. It’s like ‘Inside the Actors Studio,’ and normally Leonard Maltin hosts.” The tributes are generally two-hour programs of clips and conversations culminating in a prize presentation. This year, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones will reap the honors.
“I think Palm Springs comes at a really great point in the process,” says Barry Dale Johnson, an awards consultant for ID-PR, whose clients include Fox Searchlight. “It serves as a helpful reminder for a lot of the films that played throughout the year at a time when the awards process is culminating.”
He would know. Last year, the cast and filmmakers of “Little Miss Sunshine” took home Palm Springs’ Vanguard award. This year, “Juno” will enjoy that honor. Both films are from Searchlight.
Which isn’t to suggest there’s anything untoward going on. “We definitely get major cooperation from publicists and in some cases are lobbied by them,” Macdonald acknowledges. “It’s not a matter of you scratch my back, I’ll brush your teeth. We select on the basis of the quality of the films and the talent.”