Oscar campaigners love the early-year film festivals in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara that are awards-attention honeytraps. As with everything else, COVID threw a wrench in the works. Palm Springs pulled the plug on its film festival, although the lucrative and starry annual Palm Springs Awards Gala will go forward in a virtual format February 25.
The Gala is a major stop on the annual awards circuit for Oscar contenders, from Breakthrough Performance Award winners (Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Hudson, Freida Pinto, Jeremy Renner) to a raft of eventual Oscar winners who accept other Palm Springs prizes, including this year’s Renée Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, and Laura Dern.
As virtual festivals go, that contingency plan doesn’t make sense for Palm Springs. From assembling in theaters to managing the technology to navigate an online showcase, its elderly local audience wasn’t going to show up. Beyond the indie titles that traditionally premiere at the festival, the major loss is its foreign-language film programming.
Up to 40 titles screen at the height of Academy viewing for the annual Best International Feature Film shortlist. Ten finalists will be revealed February 9, to be winnowed down to the final five Oscar nominees. In recent years, the festival brought in directors of the shortlisted foreign films for a panel held just after the Golden Globes (when many of the filmmakers were in Los Angeles), that was well-covered by media.
“It’s a warm, receptive, vibrant audience invested in that type of film,” said foreign-language film publicist Josh Haroutunian. “It’s a great community of foreign-language directors who pop down to Palm Springs and do things together. It raised the profile of the shortlisted films.”
Executive director Roger Durling of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival — a key stop on the post-Globes and Oscar nominations awards circuit with an array of panels and tributes — says the event will proceed March 31-April 10, in whatever is the safest format possible. After the Palm Springs cancellation, he said his phone started to ring with distributors offering their films. “We will expand to include more,” he said.
Under Durling, the SBIFF has flourished by riding the awards-season wave via onstage interviews with Oscar contenders. Every year, screenwriters, directors and producers promote their causes with panels and A-list, in-depth tributes from the likes of Brad Pitt, Renée Zellweger, Gary Oldman, Viola Davis, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, Rami Malek, Glenn Close, and Richard E. Grant. Last year, eventual Oscar-winner Bong Joon Ho was on hand for a retrospective of his films and participated in a Q&A following a free screening of “Parasite.”
Durling envisions proceeding with one of five plans that range from the worst-case scenario — all digital — to theaters partially full, to outdoor panels with safe-spacing and drive-in screenings on available lots.
“We’re five months away,” he said. Theaters in Santa Barbara currently operate at 25 percent capacity, including the festival’s 2,000-seat hub, the Arlington. Nobody knows where things will be by March 31. “In the best of all possible worlds, it will be in person,” Durling said. “No matter what, we are moving forward. We are thinking creatively. It is essential to move toward a celebration of cinema in whichever way we can.”
That’s something the Academy is thinking about as well, as the odds of mounting a live in-person Oscars are looking slim.