California fests bring out big names

Proximity to Hollywood helps attract star power

When it comes to star wattage, the California fests have a natural advantage, one which leaves most of their international — and even out of state — peers green with envy. Their close proximity to Tinseltown ensures a steady attendance of A-list celebs — stars who might balk at the rigors of a trans-Atlantic jaunt, but are happy to be chauffeured across town, or even along the coast, to accept an award.

For the major Southern California players — the Los Angeles, AFI, Hollywood and Santa Barbara film festivals — memorable photo calls are not a stretch. Audiences can thus bask in the white-hot glow of their favorite stars, while their organizers echo the traditional, Cannes-endorsed model of “what a film festival should be” — big names, red-carpet premieres and honors.

For its 23rd edition, Santa Barbara has introduced a Virtuosos award, created to recognize “a select group of young actors who have distinguished themselves through performances in film this past year.” Recipients include Casey Affleck, Marion Cotillard, James McAvoy, Ellen Page and Amy Ryan, all of whom are scheduled to attend. And Ryan Gosling will receive the fest’s first Independent Award, established to recognize an actor who has made “a significant and unique contribution to independent film.”

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It’s an inspired example of having one’s cake (the prizes are, after all, about discovery — about recognizing new talent, not relying on the old verities), and eating it too.

At the same time, kudos are heading Angelina Jolie’s and Cate Blanchett’s way, with an Outstanding Performance of the Year (for “A Mighty Heart”) and a Modern Master award, respectively — thereby satisfying more celeb-hungry audience members, not to mention picture editors around the country.

But the blessings of the Golden West can also be a curse: A preponderance of famous names can detract from other, smaller items in the program, and create the impression of an event that’s all style and no substance.

Other fests, lacking the same ready access to A-list talent, are obliged to be more cunning in terms of programming and brand identity: Tribeca and Austin’s SXSW each seek to steal a little of Sundance’s thunder as “indie discovery central,” while fests like Miami and Seattle take care to reflect the ethnic and/or economic characters of their particular locations.

It’s a balancing act, though one that the California fest toppers have learned to work to their advantage. While Sundance and Tribeca continue to exert pressure for world and U.S. premieres, few indie or foreign-language filmmakers shy away from having their work unspool in the heart of the global film industry. The main problem becomes dividing up the spoils, with each fest zealously defending its lineup against the others.

Whether the Coast can satisfy the demands of four major fests remains to be seen. For now, however, those flashbulbs will keep popping.