The scene at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
The scene at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Nearly 30 years after its inception, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival finds itself at a crossroads. Having wrapped its 11-day run last weekend, the 28th edition of the SBIFF presented a characteristically eclectic assortment of nearly 200 films, a half-dozen movie star tributes and a quartet of industry-heavy panels. But can it remain relevant in a changing and increasingly competitive festival landscape?

“Any successful film festival needs an identity,” notes SBIFF executive director Roger Durling. Although Santa Barbara programmers routinely seek out quality work by rising directors, recent years have also seen their share of merely serviceable items more noteworthy for the marquee value of their talent. Last year’s opener “Darling Companion,” for instance, was a meandering comedy that would surely have been overlooked but for its director (Lawrence Kasdan) and a cast that included Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline. As a result of choices like those, the Santa Barbara fest has risked being overshadowed by its annual parade of red-carpet events, the byproducts of Oscar season timing and the town’s proximity to Hollywood.

"Darling Companion"
Sony Pictures Classics "Darling Companion"

“It’s a double-edged sword,” concedes Durling of the paparazzi-baiting events. Unquestionably, the hugely popular celebrity tributes assure a slew of media attention and a measure of financial success. And unlike the rival Palm Springs Festival, which top-loads its celebrity attendees into a single gala, Santa Barbara’s multiple tributes -- honorees included Oscar nominees Jennifer Lawrence, Daniel Day-Lewis and Amy Adams -- virtually guarantee a week’s worth of Google hits.

However, Palm Springs has also managed to turn Oscar season into a programming advantage as the single biggest domestic showcase of foreign films. Whether that distinction was by design or the lucky beneficiary of Academy scheduling hardly matters. Years ago, it became a convenient and relatively cost-effective move to ship the prints of international Oscar submissions to Palm Springs once they had screened for foreign language committees in Hollywood. The Palm Springs festival’s windfall became its most forceful branding tool.

So if Palm Springs is known for its international programming and Sundance for its indie-meets-industry cachet, buzz-worthy debuts and bidding wars, where does that leave the third winter festival, Santa Barbara?

Executive director Durling faced that question a decade ago when he assumed the job (famously offering his first year without salary). At the time, Durling was widely credited with having infused fresh energy into a festival that had grown stagnant and out-of-touch. Perhaps coasting on its low-key alternative-to-Sundance vibe, the SBIFF had begun looking like an also-ran in the festival derby.

A Panama-born movie buff and local entrepreneur, Durling resolved to strengthen the festival’s ties to its community. He introduced a Latin American sidebar (the local population is 35% Latino) and simultaneously began to spotlight the work of local Santa Barbara filmmakers. This year’s Spanish/Latin American Cinema standouts included the U.S. premiere of the creepily seductive Spanish thriller “The Body” (“El Cuerpo”), and the edgy suspense drama “7 Boxes” (“7 Cajas”) from Paraguay, which won top honors in its category.