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Santa Barbara fest a local affair

Local resident Bridges one of many thesps to appear

Santa Barbara’s 100-year connection to the film business, and its most renowned native sons, are celebrated at this year’s 25th unspooling of the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival.

From locally shot opening-night film “Flying Lessons,” to a Jeff Bridges Day (Feb. 14) that includes screenings of his Oscar-nominated perfs, to helmer James Cameron leading a morning seminar for local schoolchildren, the 2010 SBIFF is a reflection of the town, per fest exec director Roger Durling.

“Why make it a generic film fest? The more specific we make it to the community, the more the festival becomes relevant and universal,” says Durling, now in his seventh year of running the seaside town’s gathering.

In total, the SBIFF expects to unspool 207 pics from 45 countries over its 10-day run. Among the fest’s 20 world premieres is “Flying Lessons” from tyro helmer Derek Magyar. Pic — starring Christine Lahti, Maggie Grace and Hal Holbrook — is the story of a woman who learns to value the present by accepting the past. It was shot almost entirely in Northern Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley over 24 days.

SBIFF “felt perfect for this project,” Magyar says, and Durling welcomes the dynamic of screening a homegrown indie film on opening night, a first for the fest.

Closing night is also a world premiere: George Gallo’s “Middle Men,” starring Giovanni Ribisi and Luke Wilson. In between are numerous sidebars, including a focus on Quebec, which will bring 12 Quebecois filmmakers to the city; Asian, Eastern European and Latino Cinemedia series; as well as nature and extreme-sports programming. Three silent films made in Santa Barbara in the early 1900s will demonstrate the century-long connection to filmmaking.

Twelve film awards are presented, including an indie cinema kudo that comes with a $60,000 Panavision camera package. Doc, student, aud and short-film awards are also bestowed.

Durling has a knack for picking honorees that often coincide with Oscar hopefuls: Colin Firth, James Cameron, Sandra Bullock, Carey Mulligan and docu “The Cove” will receive kudos as well as participate in a moderated sesh. Also, helmer Kathryn Bigelow will be feted as director of the year.

Filmmaker panels attract top talent as well. Variety’s Peter Bart conducts the “Directors on Directing” panel that includes Jason Reitman, Cameron, Bigelow and “Up’s” Pete Docter. Local resident Ivan Reitman will be on the producers’ panel, and Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe,” which Reitman produced, is slated to screen.

With only nine venues, all in downtown on State Street, the fest is currently at capacity, notes Durling. In 2009, SBIFF tallied 70,000 admissions. This year, 8 a.m. screenings have been added to accommodate aud demand.

He cites the Telluride Film Festival and director Tom Luddy as influencing SBIFF’s DNA.

“The festival is embraced by the environment; all the venues are within walking distance. We have the coziness of Telluride but not the remoteness,” Durling says.

Definitely adding to the fest’s allure, particularly for honorees, is its proximity to Los Angeles (just 90 miles north), timing (in the midst of award season) and the tony digs available at the San Ysidro Ranch and Four Seasons Biltmore. Predicted to be one of the fest’s emotional high points is the tribute to Bridges, who Durling credits for helping pull the fest out a fiscal low point seven years ago. According to Durling, Bridges pressed Universal to preem “Seabiscuit” in Santa Barbara as a fundraiser.

For his part, Bridges (a Santa Barbara resident since the 1994 Northridge earthquake) credits Durling for elevating the fest’s profile and notes that due to the silent era’s Flying A Studios, the city was “the original Hollywood in a sense.” He also points to the Montecito Inn, once owned by Charlie Chaplin, as cementing that relationship.

“I think it would be great to shoot up here,” adds Bridges, who memorably starred in “Cutter’s Way,” the definitive Santa Barbara-made film. “It would be nice to roll down the hill to make a movie.”

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