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Santa Barbara Film Festival Gets Under Way With Renewed Purpose

Neither rain, ash nor mudslide will keep the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival from getting under way as scheduled on Jan. 31.

Executive director Roger Durling says he never once considered delaying or cancelling this year’s festival when one disaster after another pummeled the area: Not when ash from the massive Thomas Fire was raining down from the Santa Barbara sky in December and not when deadly mudslides closed the 101 Freeway in the region for almost two weeks leading up to the festival, complicating logistics for an event that has become an important part of the Hollywood awards season calendar.

If anything, Durling says, the disasters strengthened his resolve to proceed as planned.

“There was no hesitancy,” he says. “I understood from a very early age the power of cinema. People want to be together and the festival is a way to do that. It was essential for us to get our act together.”

While the downtown Santa Barbara area where the festival takes place has been spared fire and mudslide damage, the community is still dealing with the fallout from the disasters — emotionally and financially — and likely will for a while, Durling says.

He, and the city, consider the festival “as the important first step in the recovery of the community,” Durling says. “It’s going to be difficult, but I think it’s important for people to get together.”

The festival typically draws 100,000 attendees, with a healthy Hollywood contingent and locals. This year, the fest’s 33rd installment, will pay tribute to actors including Willem Dafoe, Gary Oldman, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell and Gal Gadot at various events that run through Feb. 10. It will also screen 45 world premieres and 53 U.S. premieres, along with filmmaker panels and community outreach activities.

In conjunction with the festival, Variety will present the fourth annual Artisans Awards on Feb. 5, with a panel moderated by Tim Gray, Variety senior VP and awards editor.

Events will kick off with the world premiere of Emilio Estevez’s latest movie, “The Public,” at the Arlington Theater, followed by a gala sponsored by Amazon Studios. Estevez wrote, directed and stars in the movie, which co-stars Alec Baldwin, Jena Malone, Christian Slater and Jeffrey Wright. It revolves around a non-violent Occupy sit-in at a Cincinnati public library, tackling the subjects of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction.

It is the first film Estevez has directed since “The Way” in 2010, which premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, and screened around the world.

“I’ve always been a big fan of his, not only in front of the camera but behind it,” Durling says. “It’s very timely and very thoughtful.”

Durling made a concerted effort to program films about globalization and the immigration crisis, as well as movies about the environment and sustainability. The latter films will likely have added resonance given the recent disasters in Santa Barbara County.

In the wake of the devastation, the festival decided to forego its annual press conference announcing its lineup and renamed the Montecito Award the Santa Barbara Award. Montecito, the wealthy community south of Santa Barbara that Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, among others, call home, has been hit especially hard by the disasters; more than 20 people died in the Jan. 9 mudslides there.

“With people dying in the unfolding tragedy, for us to be announcing an award traditionally named Montecito just didn’t feel right,” Durling says.
Ronan, star of “Lady Bird,” will receive the renamed tribute on Feb. 4.

The festival is also encouraging attendees to patronize Santa Barbara businesses, which have suffered since the cascading disasters hit the area. The Thomas Fire, the largest in the state’s history, ignited Dec. 4 in neighboring Ventura County and spread to Santa Barbara on Dec. 16, causing the city’s zoo to be closed for five days. The fire had burned more than 280,000 acres by the time it was declared 100% contained Jan. 12.

By then, however, heavy rains had triggered the deadly Jan. 9 mudslides in Montecito, closing the 101 Freeway and effectively cutting Santa Barbara off from the area south to Ventura until it reopened Jan. 21. This closure has further hammered businesses in the area.

Durling says he explored ways to get Hollywood talent to the festival for tribute events, via helicopter or private planes in the event that the freeway did not reopen.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years now. It’s a big logistical puzzle and it just keeps getting bigger,” he says. “The tragedy just amplifies that. It also amplifies the importance of the role of the festival.”

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