Santa Barbara became a movie town in 1912, when the American Film Co., aka the Flying A, set up shop there. The studio began cranking out shorts at a rapid pace, producing an estimated 1,200 silent movies before its demise in 1921.
But Santa Barbara’s showbiz embrace didn’t end there: It has long served as a favored tryout city, film and TV location, and industry playground.
Since 1986, the coastal community 89 miles north of Hollywood has also been home to the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival. The festival, which kicks off Feb. 1, will feature a jam-packed lineup of premieres, starry events, and panel discussions. In a nod to Santa Barbara’s storied past, the fest will also serve as the formal curtain-raiser of its major capital project, the renovation of the city’s historic Riviera Theater.
The Riviera Theater, recently acquired by the SBIFF through a 30-year lease, has long been symbolic of the arts in town as an auditorium and performing stage on the campus of the Santa Barbara State Normal School, which in 1954 vacated the city for a former U.S. Marine Corps training facility at nearby Goleta, becoming the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The theater was converted into a movie house in 1965, the same year that director Leslie H. Martinson shot action scenes for “Batman: The Movie” (1966) with Adam West and Burt Ward on the 1872-vintage Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.
The festival is raising $5 million to convert the facility into a multi-purpose, state-of-the-art film educational center by April.
“We’re redoing everything,” says Sean Pratt, SBIFF director of operations, who cited a new acoustic system and slope to the auditorium as two of the improvements.
The project reflects the festival’s commitment to the community as well as the movies produced to the south and beyond that it annually screens.
“We try to keep in the festival elements that speak Santa Barbara,” Pratt says. “We look for surf films and those for nature enthusiasts while we also honor world culture with international flavor. More than 50 countries are represented this year at the festival.”
The SBIFF screenings include 51 world premieres and 64 U.S. premieres. It will dole out awards to Jeff Bridges, Denzel Washington, Emma Stone, and Ryan Gosling in a series of events; the Variety Artisans Awards will be dispensed in a Feb. 6 ceremony. These events have become a regular stop on the awards circuit as the Oscars approach.
“SBIFF brings big-stage events to our small city, boosts our cultural economy, and bolsters the entrepreneurial spirit that makes the city of Santa Barbara so special,” says mayor Helene Schneider.
The SBIFF is rivaled as a cultural event in the city only by August’s regionally famous Old Spanish Days/Fiesta Santa Barbara, according to Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and columnist for the Santa Barbara Independent.
“The film festival has grown and grown,” Redmon says. “It has become a great boon to the city and brought prestige with honorees through the years like Clint Eastwood as well as significant educational components with workshops and lectures.”
This year, a record 100,000 cineastes — greater than the city’s year-round population of about 90,000 — are expected to attend the festival, a nudge over last year’s 95,000 visitors, bringing at least an estimated $60 million into a city in which the film culture runs deep.
Indeed, the city and region have hosted hundreds of films and television productions, including Moses delivering “The Ten Commandments” in 1923, James Stewart’s Charles Lindbergh flying “The Spirit of St. Louis” in 1957, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Academy Award-winning role in “There Will Be Blood,” in 2007, and projects such as “The Fugitive,” “The Odd Couple,” “Star Trek,” “The Bachelor,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” along with “Seabiscuit” (2003) and “Bikini Island” (1980).
Santa Barbara has starred as itself in director Ivan Passer’s neo-noir cult classic “Cutter’s Way” (1981) starring Bridges, Alexander Payne’s Santa Barbara County winery-hopping favorite “Sideways” (2004), and Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” starring Annette Bening. It was also home the titular TV sudser “Santa Barbara” (1984-93).
The very first Santa Barbara film festival honored a local Montecito resident and film noir icon, Robert Mitchum, with a tribute hosted by Santa Barbara’s Judith Anderson. Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt are just a few of the celebrities who have stopped by the festival since.
Under executive director Roger Durling’s leadership, the festival has beefed up its international quotient and expanded year-round programming, courting the nearby community, which has included Ronald Reagan and Oprah Winfrey over the years.
Soon, the restored movie theater will be open for those residents.
“We’ll install new seats, a new slope to the floor with better sightlines and a full acoustic transformation with the installation of an Dolby Atmos system with 48 surround-sound speakers,” Pratt says. “We’ll install a green room lounge area as well as classroom space for educational programs.”
Santa Barbara, the namesake of the third-century patron saint of firefighters, seafarers, and others facing dangers, has served Hollywood’s purposes for more than a century — and that won’t end any time soon.