San Diego Film Festival Sees Galas, Industry Events Pump Up Profile

San Diego Film Festival Gas lamp quarter
Driendl Group/Getty Images

Now in its 13th year, the San Diego Film Festival, produced by the San Diego Film Foundation, describes itself as “5 Days. 100+ Film Screenings. 2 Film Villages: Gaslamp Quarter & La Jolla” — a slogan that aptly reflects the scope of the five-day event.

In the crowded fall fest landscape, SDFF has managed to distinguish itself from the herd by adopting a simple but effective strategy. “It’s bigger than ever, with more star power, more gala films and more industry-related events, including panels and parties,” says chairman Dale Strack. “We have filmmakers from over 55 countries attending this year. It’s the same festival as before, but on steroids.”

Celebrating an eclectic mix of movies from Hollywood and independent cinema — and from emerging and established filmmakers — SDFF is “both San Diego-specific and industry-specific,” says Tonya Mantooth, VP and director of programming. “We’re really taking advantage of the huge local interest in movies and creating the whole start-to-finish festival experience for them, which is something that film festivals in this area haven’t had.”

The organizers are well aware the festival comes hard on the heels of the far bigger one up north — Toronto — and are using that proximity to their advantage. “Because we’re so close, we become one of the next choices after Toronto, and studios and independents are seeing that as a great opportunity to feature films and talent here, and get a lot of recognition,” Strack says.

They’re also taking advantage of the city’s sophisticated movie audiences, he adds. “And local audiences are very interactive with the filmmakers. By contrast, Toronto is so big that they don’t have that kind of interaction.

“The festival has become a good indicator of a film’s chances in the awards season and proves that our local audiences have a great eye,” Strack says, noting that it has screened both “12 Years a Slave” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Looking to the future, however, both execs say they don’t want SDFF, despite its rapid growth, to be perceived as “Toronto West.”

“Our goal is not to become a mega-festival,” says Strack, “but rather a very discerning one for introducing everything from docs to shorts and foreign films.”

But the organizers do have their eyes on bigger horizons. “We’re starting to introduce independent music, and we have plans to stress more of the digital side,” says Strack. “People don’t know that we’re one of the largest interactive hubs in the country, so we want to take advantage of that.”

Plans for SDFF will also incorporate more of the city’s ocean-front location and natural beauty. “We’ll be doing many unique venues, and our downtown village festival sits right on the bay,” adds Mantooth. “Next year we plan to start screening films on one of the big boats that go out in the bay. Not many places can offer that.”