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Santa Barbara International Film Festival Caught in a Crossroads: Can It Remain Relevant?

Santa Barbara International Film Festival Caught in a Crossroads: Can It Remain Relevant?

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.

“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.Recent years have also seen a sharpening of the fest’s international entries. Alongside the Kolnoa sidebar, devoted to films that reflect the Israeli experience, programmers created Pan-Asia, geared to examining contemporary Asian culture. Santa Barbara programming director Michael Albright, who joined in 2011, explains, “We felt there had to be some culling in the selection of foreign films. And we wanted to integrate them into the overall programming more effectively,” rather than ghettoizing them as a separate catch-all.

Still, a competitive International category remains; this year’s winner in that category was “Coming of Age,” (“Anfang 80”) a sobering and surprisingly funny look at a pair of octogenarians who fall in love. Meanwhile, a distinctly international flavor permeates the indie feature winner “Babygirl,” a gritty Irish-American hybrid about a Bronx-based Puerto Rican girl grappling with a family crisis. And “Revolution,” an eco-marine documentary from Rob Stewart (“Sharkwater”) took the festival’s social justice prize.

Mindful of the festival’s need to appeal to younger audiences and take advantage of the local student populace (it’s home to UCSB and Santa Barbara City College), Albright and his team implemented a few changes, adding some sidebars and consolidating others. New last year, the Cinesonic section focuses on iconic musicians and their legacy. This year’s entry “Sound City,” featuring Dave Grohl, was one of the festival’s hottest tickets.

Not to be outdone, Santa Barbara’s well-established surfing and skateboarding community finds its own niche in To the Maxxx, a collection of extreme sports films. A pair of surfing docs, “Storm Surfers 3D” and “Discovering Mavericks,” both played to packed houses in prime-time slots.

But perhaps the festival’s most unexpectedly successful addition has been Screen Cuisine, a tantalizing amuse-bouche that Albright cooked up last year to celebrate the culinary appeal of cinema. Given the region’s huge post-“Sideways” appeal to all manner of gourmands and wine lovers, putting a culinary section on the festival menu made sense. This year, “Spinning Plates,” about a trio of extraordinary restaurants, nabbed top honors from festival audiences. Top doc went to “More than Honey,” a remarkable Swiss/German/Austrian co-production about the globally endangered honeybee population.

And yet as popular as these films were among Santa Barbara audiences, the real prize that has eluded the festival is a distribution deal. Too often, notes SBIFF Board president Doug Stone, “I noticed we were not getting certain films because they would pass us over in favor of South by Southwest, Cannes, Toronto – and now Tribeca. I didn’t like the idea that we were missing good films because they didn’t want to show up at a festival where buyers are not present.”

Last year, Stone initiated the festival’s Acquisitions Program, inviting major distributors and sales reps, arranging screenings to minimize potential overlaps, highlighting films with the best sales prospects and making it generally easier for buyers to access the films. While a number of films like “Samsara” and “Starbuck” secured distribution in the wake of the festival – deals that were initiated in Santa Barbara – the most gratifying reward, admits Stone, would be to see that deal signed during the festival.

It’s a prize Stone says is becoming increasingly likely, though he hedges when asked to speculate on this year’s prospects. He also insists the Acquisitions Program is a work in progress. “I’ve always seen it,” he says, “as a five-year plan.”

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