When Roger Durling moved to Santa Barbara almost 20 years ago, long before he took the reins as creative director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, he quickly found solace in the Riviera Theatre. “It was a sanctuary for independent cinema,” said Durling of his first impressions of the theater, which is the centerpiece of a hillside, century-old office park just off Alameda Padre Serra that served as the first campus for both UCSB and SBCC. “And there’s something amazing about stepping out of a movie house and looking out to see the Channel Islands and the Arlington and all of downtown Santa Barbara from up there. It’s a pretty special view.”
Last Thursday, Durling and the film fest’s board officially became the conservators and curators of this cinematic sanctuary by signing a lease that effectively puts them in control of the Riviera Theatre for the next 30 years. The bold move puts an exclamation point on SBIFF’s evolution during the past decade from merely a 10-day festival into a truly year-round institution that showcases indie/foreign films every Wednesday, hosts celebrity interviews and prerelease screenings most weekends, throws two annual mini-fests, and is steadily expanding educational and free film opportunities for all ages and income levels.
“It’s a major turning point for the film festival,” said Durling. “It will crystallize the expansion of all the different programs we have. Ultimately, it will definitely grow our stature and importance culturally, not just in the city, but I’m certain on a national and international level.”
The Towbes Touch
In the works for nearly two years, the deal was specially crafted with property owner Michael Towbes, the developer whose philanthropic support for Santa Barbara’s artistic and cultural communities is unparalleled. “I was around when the film festival started, and to see the way it’s grown over the years — it’s quite impressive,” said Towbes. “It’s really helped put Santa Barbara on the map.”
Still, he was a little confused when SBIFF expressed interest in managing the Riviera as a year-round venue. “I had no idea that they had plans to expand their programming as much as they do,” said Towbes. But he was still reluctant because, for the past 27 years, the Riviera Theatre has been leased by the Metropolitan Theatres Corporation (MTC), the family-owned company that controls every other movie house in town. “We are very fond of the Metropolitan Theatre folks, and they’ve done a good job there, so it was not an easy decision,” said Towbes. “But I thought that being able to expand the activities of the film fest would be good for the community.”
The SBIFF team working the deal — which included president Mark Scher, CFO Bob Brada, Eric Phillips, and Jeff Barbakow — also realized the potential political implications of taking over the lease, since they rent many State Street theaters from MTC during the January-February festival, an important concern considering SBIFF plans to always hold the extremely popular festival downtown. Luckily, their relationship with the Corwin family, which owns MTC, remains strong — in fact, MTC will likely continue running the Riviera’s day-to-day operations, though those details are still being worked out. “There was concern, of course, but they’ve [MTC and the Corwin family] been more than cooperative and are excited for us,” said Scher. “We will continue to work together and even deepen the relationship.”
David Corwin, president of MTC, confirms as much, though he said there are plenty of logistics left to untangle, from equipment to licensing issues. “It’s a little bit of a role reversal,” said Corwin. “But at the end of the day, the theater will get improved, and we will provide that much more programming for the community. It should be a win-win for everyone.”
As part of the lease — which is for 20 years with a 10-year option, though financial details have not yet been disclosed — Towbes is taking responsibility for infrastructure upgrades, such as the bathrooms, while SBIFF will raise an undetermined amount of money to fund improvements to the theater itself, from the seats and air conditioning to the sound system and screen projection. Towbes’s infrastructure work should start this summer (and the theater should remain open, though with porta-potties). SBIFF plans to start adding its touches in January 2017 when the film fest season is in full swing.
The theatrical improvements should take between six weeks and two months, and they’re long overdue, as complaints about the theater’s uncomfortable seating, stale air, and less-than-ideal movie-watching experience are common. “People are fine going into the theater in its historical condition,” said Brada, “but they’re gonna be really happy going in a year and a half from now.”
Cinema Society Surging
It’s not often that a nonprofit arts organization leaps into the brick-and-mortar role of managing a venue, but Durling, who took leadership of the festival in 2002, explained that the idea of bringing everything under one roof has been on SBIFF’s collective mind for quite some time. “The recession slowed down a lot of these long-term plans that we had,” he said. “It wasn’t until a few years ago where we were financially in a good place to start fulfilling the idea of doing The Wave Film Festivals, to start doing Showcase screenings, and to expand the Cinema Society.” [See the below “What Does SBIFF Do?” for more info on those.]