Although they don’t make life-or-death decisions, the jurors of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival have a serious job to perform. Selected from a pool of film-industry professionals, with résumés ranging from success to stardom, they show up beneath the radar and perform their tasks under a cloak of modest obscurity. Yet they play a vital role in the success and prestige of the festival.
In its 21 years, the festival has grown from a modest community event to its present-day bonanza of glitz and celebrities, tributes, and panels. But the jury keeps it real. They remind us that it’s the movies that are the true heart of the festival.
Nine years ago, former festival director Renée Missel enlisted producer and part-time Santa Barbara resident Ilene Kahn Power to chair the jury. The job requires first-rate film connections, good recruiting skills, solving scheduling challenges, juggling the logistics of housing and transportation, and dealing with emergency dropouts—in other words, an adept producer. Ilene, the award-winning producer of Stalin, Gia, Traffic, and, most recently, Elvis, is perfectly suited for the job. Three years ago her husband Derek Power joined her as co-chair. A Film Festival boardmember, he heads his own personal management company. One of his clients, Stewart Copeland of The Police, will be screening Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out at the festival.
Under Roger Durling, the cinematic scope of the festival has greatly expanded. This year, five separate juries will judge five categories of films: American Independents, International Features, Cinema from Latin America and Spain, Documentaries, and Shorts. At least 49 of the films will be U.S. or world premieres. The jurors will give out 12 awards, with prizes totaling almost $100,000. These awards will be announced on February 12 at the Arlington Theatre before the screening of the final film of the festival, Thank You for Smoking. One of the awards, the Gold Vision Award, comes with a distribution deal from York Entertainment.
“Awards are important,” said executive director Roger Durling, “because they help promote a film—bring exposure to it. And for a festival, they are vital, because filmmakers love to have a film in competition—it’s more prestigious.” As Derek Power put it, “Hip films with a future are showing here, and winning this festival translates into public awareness, which is good for the film and good for the festival. The more significant the awards, the more filmmakers will want to premiere their films here. And with more films showing here for the first time, more buyers will be coming to see them. All of which moves the festival toward greater prestige. And we would like to be the premiere West Coast film festival.”
Past jurors represent an eclectic who’s who of world cinema. Over the years, festival-goers may have recognized Julie Christie or Stockard Channing or Elliott Gould, but may not have realized they were watching movies with some of today’s great directors, writers, producers, and composers. “We pick successful professionals, but we try to get the creative ones,” said Ilene. This year’s dozen jurors include director Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate, A Walk in the Clouds), producer Michael Nozik (Motorcycle Diaries, Syriana), actor Shaun Toub (Crash), and journalist and author Ann Louise Bardach, among others.
“The people we want are busy people, but they are honored and thrilled to have five days in Santa Barbara looking at four films a day,” said Ilene. “It is very important that these films get seen by the jurors on the big screen and in a cinematic environment.” The jurors will see two to four movies a day. “We go into submersion,” said Ilene. “Jurors are supposed to talk only among themselves, but it is always very spirited.” They then make their choices during a long afternoon of deliberating. “It’s a lively discussion,” said Derek. “People have strong opinions, but we’ve never had any bloody conversations.” “We haven’t had one juror who hasn’t asked to return,” added Ilene.