Last Friday afternoon, May 11, in New York City, HBO announced that the 2008 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival will not take place in Aspen, Colorado next year. Immediately following the announcement, an HBO spokeswoman confirmed that Santa Barbara was being considered as the 2008 location for the festival, which has attracted thousands of HBO stars, independent comedians, and entertainment industry executives to Aspen annually for 13 years. Later on Friday, the Denver Post cited another anonymous HBO source as saying that HBO has already booked the necessary hotel rooms in Santa Barbara for next year. When contacted by this reporter, the spokeswoman replied via email, “I don’t anticipate the deal being ready to announce for another couple of weeks.”

Apparently, HBO’s chief complaint about Aspen was that the St. Regis is going condo, and that was considered the power hotel. Again, here’s the spokeswoman from HBO on that: “A lot of the hotels in Aspen are turning into condos, the St. Regis being one of them. Space is limited, and it’s incredibly expensive . . . Many of the properties also require four- or five-day stays, which is difficult, and expensive too.”

While many area hotels stand to benefit from the festival, if the Aspen departure involved HBO executives losing their deal with the St. Regis, whose most likely equivalent establishment here would be the Four Seasons Biltmore. Unlike Sundance, where layers of security and hordes of paparazzi separate the players from direct contact with each other – never mind the press or the public – the CAF in Aspen has remained an old-fashioned shmooze-fest for its entire duration, with veterans and rookies sharing spots around the fireplaces in the St. Regis bar.

From a deal-making point of view, there should be as much action in the hotel bar as there is in the performance spaces, and this is what makes thinking about the logistics of such an event in Santa Barbara so much fun. For instance, Bacara would make an interesting choice, but is its outer Goleta location conducive to the kind of between shows conversations that routinely occurred in Aspen’s St. Regis? And what about the Biltmore? Whether it was planned that way or not, the Will Smith party during this year’s film fest, which Ty Warner paid for, was a kind of audition for any executives who attended SBIFF and were aware that the Aspen location for CAF was in trouble. The Andalucia’s downtown location might make a great headquarters, but can it fit enough people? Fess Parker’s Doubletree? The Mar Monte? The Santa Barbara Hotel, which is the hub for SBIFF?

Just a few weeks after our film festival closed, the 2007 Comedy Arts festival opened in late February, and was promptly derailed by a massive Denver blizzard that stranded a third of the expected opening day performers. And, while the HBO spokeswoman (who, by the way, requested that her name not be used even though she was on the record) did insist that other locations on the West Coast were also being looked at, she was sure of two things: “Santa Barbara,” and that “none of them [are] snow locations.”

Las Vegas is out, as it is already hosting HBO’s brand new fall comedy event, which takes place in November and is organized around bigger, more traditional style stand-up comedy names and venues. Speculation is already under way that HBO will adjust both the dates and the content of the 2008 CAF to further distinguish it from its new baby brother. Expect to see the Santa Barbara version, if it happens, in April or May, rather than at the end of February.

As for content, the focus will remain on discovering new talent, and on exposing HBO’s brand of comedy to other executives at Viacom and throughout the industry. In other words, if this deal actually does go down, the entire city will be on a Code Red: Jeremy Piven Alert level for several days.


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