Interview with Film Fest Founder

SBIFF Founder Phyllis de Picciotto Reflects on Twenty-Five Years of the Festival

How did you get started in the film industry?

I worked in a category that was called “specialized” or “art” films. Not necessarily the same as what are today called independent films, the specialized market was mostly foreign films and documentaries—basically everything but Hollywood. I helped get films into art houses all across the country. I opened films by Bergman, Truffaut, and Fassbinder—everyone but Fellini. I was also involved with the Laemmle Theaters as a partner in the exhibition of films. I presented quite a few shows as Phyllis de Picciotto presents, including all the early work of Pedro Almodovar.

How did you first start exhibiting in Santa Barbara?

I became partners with Bruce Corwin in the Riviera Theater. That was when I first started to think about a Santa Barbara film festival. I went to Cannes every year and I thought these places really do have a lot in common. I made the classic Riviera connection.

Were you living here when you decided to move forward with the idea of the film festival?

I was splitting my time between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara when the idea of a Santa Barbara Film Festival resurfaced. It was never really a part of my film business. I was a volunteer when I started the film festival. I donated my services. If I had known how difficult it would be to run a non-profit, I’m not sure that I would have done it. Economically, the mid-1980s were similar to now. Things were not good with the economy.

What did you bring to it at the beginning?

It takes a while—five years at least—to really get into the community in Santa Barbara, so I was still an outsider in a lot of ways, but I did know how to put together an interesting slate of films. I had an office here in the Granada building, and I had another office above the Royal Theater in Los Angeles, and all day every day I screened films, so I really knew what was available.

I was also fortunate to have a partner who I liked. Jenny Cushnie and I had one thing in common, which was that we were both beyond belief detail-oriented. The city was in a period of economic hardship and they created something called the Santa Barbara Festival and Events Committee. They had $20,000 available, and Jenny Cushnie was the writer and the hero in this grant writing process, because she slaved over a typewriter with a bottle of Whiteout and wrote the proposal that got us the grant. I was the Hollywood person, so my job was to punch it up.

Well, when they gave us the money, we were stuck. We had to go through with it. After we got into it, Bruce Corwin came in with $10,000 and he made the theaters free to us for that first year. In 1985-1986, there were maybe 10 film festivals in the whole country, and most of them were small.

What do you remember most vividly about the process?

When I went to the city council to thank them for the grant, to a person they said, “What is a film festival?” So there was a lot of education to do, but it was through them that I found my first board members, including Lawrence Miller, who guided the initial decisions that gave the festival its shape and identity.

Could you give some examples of Miller’s influence?

For instance, the original festival was 2 and half days, and Larry Miller said that it would have to be ten. I didn’t want to hear that, but he was right. Miller, who was a great leader and a great businessperson, handled all kinds of things, especially those having to do with the non-profit aspect, and he did it all successfully.

What were some of the obstacles you faced?

The trafficking of the films was a big challenge. With so many films it was very hard just to get them here and then get them out to wherever they were going next. Another thing was the projectionists, who had to work very hard for the festival. When the projectionist’s union came on and supported us, it was crucial. The head union guy, George, would bring in pizzas for the volunteers. When you think of the practical stuff—this was when films had to be loaded on reels—the projectionists really had to step up, because they were not used to loading a new film every two hours. Typically they would have a week, but for a festival, it took a lot of them, and they all had to work very hard.

What were some of the adjustments you had to make as the festival grew?

It became clear at a certain point that we would never become a market. There was one in LA that was close to us in the calendar, and it just wasn’t possible for Santa Barbara to do that, or to get them to move here, so we had to start thinking creatively about how to become a force in the film festival world. In the beginning years we focused on different countries, and we were just working to find our niche. We had the tributes from the beginning, but I have to give credit to Roger Durling, because he was the one who moved it earlier in the calendar year to coincide with the Academy Awards nominations. The existing structure, in terms of the tributes, the panels, and the whole shape of it has actually stayed the same; it’s just that now the publicity plugs directly into the Oscar race.

Who were your favorites among the tributes in the early years?

Jimmy Stewart was our Modern Master for the second year, and he had some hearing loss, but he didn’t want to wear a hearing aid. Instead, he asked me to stay alongside him and help him keep track of what was being said. He did absolutely everything we asked, including sit through a marching band, and at one point he told me “the audience is my partner, and I must respect that.”

What are your thoughts on the occasion of the festival’s 25th anniversary?

The film festival belongs to the town of Santa Barbara. It doesn’t belong to any special group, because even the people running it are just custodians, and the reason that’s true is because of the volunteers. They are the heart and soul of the festival. When I used to train them, I would say that you are going to work hard, and you aren’t going to have time to see a lot of films, but you will feel life slow down when the whole thing is over, because you are going to have the most fast-paced, most memorable ten days of your life.

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