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Festival Circus: How the Santa Barbara Film Festival Copes With Oscar Season

Festival Circus: How the Santa Barbara Film Festival Copes With Oscar Season

Here’s the deal with film festivals in Southern California during Oscar season: The blessing is to be a festival in Southern California during Oscar season. The curse is to be a festival in Southern California during Oscar season.

Now, the festivals’ publicity departments will tout only the blessings: The face-to-face contact with stars and contenders, the prestige of being so close to the Oscar buzz that you can feel it. These publicists will naturally ignore the curses: Celebrity razzmatazz overwhelming the central mission of a festival to help audiences discover new kinds of cinema, Oscar noise and studio tub-thumping drowning out the art and artists. As I discussed in a previous column, festivals buying into the Oscar season promotional game do so at a very great risk to their purposes and identities.

I first attended the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which is held near the end of January (and begins this year’s edition on Thursday), in the mid-nineties, before the Oscar game kicked in. It was a cool, sleepy kind of event, sort of like the town, which is bursting with money and affluence (Montecito, home to Oprah and Ivan Reitman, is just next door) but likes to keep that side quiet. This isn’t Beverly Hills, but it’s also not Huntington Beach. The program appealed to the town’s progressive political bent and outdoor sports spirit, with many docs looking at human rights and environmental issues, plus a reliable supply of watchable surfing and sports movies. Important movies beyond U.S. borders, many unseen in Los Angeles, would form the program’s core.  

Over time, the American film industry, as well as the media that serves it all too compliantly, allowed the Oscar season to engulf everything else. Santa Barbara joined the wave, following the strategy adopted earlier by the Palm Springs festival (which runs in early January, just before nominations are announced) and created more galas, special events and panels lassoed to Oscar.

It gradually altered the nice, sleepy vibe, which had been especially appreciated by those of us coming into town after the frozen frenzy of Sundance. Santa Barbara literally went Hollywood, shifting its purpose from a festival-of-festivals, with a nice though not ambitious range of global movies which had premiered elsewhere in the previous year, to more and more of another stop on the road to Oscar night.

Now, this game is firmly established and isn’t likely to change. There’s no reason for that to happen, certainly not from the organizers’ standpoint, especially since the local audience seems to enjoy rubbing shoulders with the contenders. In this regard, there’s a huge difference between how the audiences in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara actually experience the Oscar machinery at work. In Palm Springs, it’s all very exclusive. The gala takes place at a convention center site quite apart from the main venues, and the stars blowing into the desert stay at quietly tucked-away resorts for the uber-rich. Santa Barbarans aren’t separated from the contenders at all; whether at the galas or panels or just shopping on the main drag known as State Street, the contenders mix with the crowds and they with them.

This is part of why Santa Barbara is a far more democratic festival than Palm Springs. The audiences tend to reflect a broader cross-section of humanity than those in Palm Springs, and in this sense, Santa Barbara resembles a typical big-city festival of diverse audiences, while existing in a relatively small town where you can walk (and or bike) everywhere. Indeed, with the added dimension of the nearby UCSB campus, the festival’s demographic is both broad and sophisticated, an ideal base for a hopefully ambitious program of international cinema. As long as it lives in January, immediately after Sundance, SBFF will always naturally be heavier on global cinema than American indies, since almost no Sundance premieres would likely travel there from Park City. (If anything, they’re more likely to travel to Berlin, happening at the same time as SBFF.)

But this is where SBFF does disappoint. The mixed salad of topical docs, sports/outdoors movies, and now, smartly (given the fantastic wine and olive-growing region of the adjacent Santa Ynez Valley, site of “Sideways”), foodie movies, is terrific—maybe the best mix of its type in any American festival.

But the program’s core of important foreign-language and non-U.S. movies leans fairly conservative. A look at the feature competition categories in the 2013 edition totaling 38 movies (Independent, International, Documentary, plus a Spanish/Latin America category—which incidentally leaves out the most exciting country right now in the Ibero-American world, Portugal) reveals a long roster of already forgotten titles — with the very few exceptions of “The Gangs of Wasseypur,” “The Deflowering of Eva Von End,” “7 Boxes,” “After Lucia,” “Clandestine Childhood” and “La Sirga,” plus the documentaries “Blood Brother” and “More Than Honey.” And few of these better-traveled features can be found on many best-of-year lists.

Other non-competition sections last year, such as one titled “Pan Asia,” were unaccountably thin, given Santa Barbara’s location on the Pacific Rim and a natural gateway festival for Asian cinema. In this case, only Cheang Pou-Soi’s “Motorway” and Kim Ki-duk’s Venice-winning “Pieta” are in any way noteworthy, and for those of us who view Kim’s brand of cinema with less than low regard, that leaves pretty slim pickings. Keep in mind that in the 1990s, SBFF introduced West Coast audiences to such master Asian filmmakers as the late Edward Yang; in the aughts, current UCSB Film Studies dean Cristina Venegas programmed a consistently superb selection of major Latin American cinema. There’s a legacy to live up to here.

At least “Motorway” is somewhat essential viewing. But 2013’s overall selection indicates that the portion devoted to the kind of cinema that’s world-class, important, worthy of playing the world’s major festivals is getting smaller. It contained Christian Petzold’s “Barbara,” the Tavianis’ “Caesar Must Die,” Pablo Larrain’s “No,” Ursula Meier’s “Sister.” That’s about it. By any measure, Santa Barbara deserves more than what amounts to about two days of moderate viewing at the New York Film Festival.

This is cautious programming, and I’ve discussed this with Santa Barbara’s enthusiastic director, Roger Durling. Durling’s an interesting guy, and rolls differently from other fest directors. He keeps a casual, easy blog that reads like it was written by a real movie fan—which is what Durling is. He moved up through the SBFF ranks, toiling in the print traffic department until he was tapped for the top spot over five years ago. He’s aggressively pushed for a greater year-round presence along the film society organizational model, and understands his community, where the Panamanian native has long lived. He also helped usher in that foodie section. His heart’s in the right place.

But Santa Barbara is prime for another aggressive campaign, to get a more adventurous selection of the world’s best movies. Movies like the Ben Rivers/Ben Russell opus, “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness,” in-between wonders like “Manakamana,” critical hits like Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” or brilliant and overlooked American indies like “Forty Years From Yesterday” would be the kind of selections that the Santa Barbara audience deserves, but they won’t see them this year. Please note that many in this audience also attend such exquisite cultural gems as the Lobero Theatre concert hall or the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, both used in the present or past as festival venues.  

This condition isn’t new at American festivals, which by and large tend to be similarly cautious. The pressures not to go too far out—or at least as that’s perceived by everyone from the programming staff to the board of directors—can be huge, especially at festivals that count every penny and depend on box office revenues. But in order to stay relevant and vital and avoid parochialism, festivals in Santa Barbara and elsewhere need to cast a wider net and challenge their audiences. Because the audiences are up to the challenge.

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