Running any event that’s treated seriously by experts yet caters to the host community can be a tricky affair. But the challenge is even more dramatic when it comes to film, where the egos and big money of the industry side must be strategically lured and carefully pampered while simultaneously keeping doors open just enough so that the everyday movie lover can still sneak a peek.
Such is the balance beam that Roger Durling started walking 12 years ago, when he was lifted from the volunteer ranks to be named executive director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). Though this year marks the 30th annual incarnation of SBIFF — which Phyllis de Picciotto founded in 1986 — the fest came into its own under Durling’s guidance. As the now 12-day fest became a popular stop for actors and directors on the Oscar campaign trail, Durling also grew the quantity and caliber of films and drew bigger and bigger crowds from further and further away. (This year, for instance, 50 percent of the pass sales are by people from outside the county.)
But his focus on Santa Barbara remains sharp. Efforts to include regional filmmakers in the fest have cultivated a stronger cinematic culture here, and in a fairly unprecedented manner, the fest steadily grows opportunities for all ages to see free films each year (here), including this year’s inaugural chance to see one free screening per day at the Lobero Theatre. Another first this year is the scholarship program that is bringing 10 students from around the country to take part in a Santa Barbara City College–powered film studies program, now in its fourth year, that teaches film analysis through attending festival screenings and panels.
“I’ve always envisioned the film festival as an educational tool not just to young minds but to adults to introduce them to foreign films and social-justice issues and even surf films,” said Durling, who believes that he’s merely “supersized” de Picciotto’s original vision for the fest. “I set really ambitious long-term goals, and we are still going in that direction, but I do feel that this is the festival that we’ve envisioned for the past 12 years. It’s like a quilt of what Santa Barbara is, and I think that’s why we are finding more and more repeat festivalgoers from out of town. The fest is basically mirroring what is unique about Santa Barbara.”