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Santa Barbara fest mixes art, stars

Event benefits from SoCal, awards-timed setting

In his five years as executive director of the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, Roger Durling’s charge has been twofold: to keep the photographers busy with high-profile honorees while still maintaining an artistically diverse slate to make the fest, which this year runs today through Feb. 3, as eclectic as the community in which it occurs.

“When I came into the picture five years ago,” Durling says, “I wanted to create a mosaic of Santa Barbara in the festival. Thirty-five percent of Santa Barbara is Latino. When you look at the programs and the sidebars, they represent the different aspects of this community. A festival should reflect its community, and our programming does.”

He and six programmers assemble the fest’s slate, which is divided into several categories — among them Latino, surf and extreme sports, nature, Asian and documentary.

“I guide them and have veto power, but it’s basically their taste,” he says of his staff’s picks. Durling himself handles the fest’s European fare. “My heart is in Eastern European films,” says the Columbia U. grad and the former programmer of the American Pavilion at Cannes.

If one phrase describes the fest’s offerings for Durling, it’s what’s he calls “off-the-beaten-path films.” He tries to avoid showing pics that have made the rounds of the festival circuit or are obvious choices. “I don’t want the Polish entry for the Oscars,” he says, speaking hypothetically. “Instead, I’d like a good entry from Poland that’s less well known. Of course, there’s stuff that’s popular, because you need some of that as well.”

Santa Barbara’s association with the Sundance Film Festival also is worth noting. Though ostensible rivals — this year, Sundance ends three days after Santa Barbara begins — the two fests share a substantial number of titles. “We have quite a few crossover films,” Durling acknowledges. “But they’re still fresh.”

Durling has also made the most of Santa Barbara’s proximity to Hollywood. This year’s list of honorees — Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones — would be considered top-tier “gets” at any festival. He attributes his success in this regard to careful planning.

“We started this process early on,” he says. “We chose Angelina back in May, Cate in March and Javier in June. We’re not riding on the bandwagon looking for who’s popular now. We honor people for their body of work; our tributes are about their whole career.”

The presence of stars is more than a tip of the hat toward Hollywood. Big names get noticed, and there’s always the possibility that they might lure nascent cineastes toward trying the fest’s less obvious material.

“You need enough stuff in the window to get people to come in,” says Durling, acknowledging that artier or just plain unfamiliar fare doesn’t always attract big crowds. “The ticketbuyers who come for Angelina — it’s a young crowd who may never have been to something like this. So it’s a good thing, and maybe they’ll grab a program and look at other stuff, too.”

Durling must be doing something right, for he says that fest attendance has risen every year he’s been on the job. To accommodate this growing demand, new venues and more screenings have been added. “Last year, we were maxed out,” he says. “We now start at 9 a.m. For a film geek like me, it’s hog heaven.”

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