After an agonizing period of delay and indecision about the timing of the event, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is back. Beginning on Wednesday, March 31, and extending through Saturday, April 10, the SBIFF will be offering a remarkably intact slate of films, panels, talks, and tributes, primarily through an online ticketing and viewing system that may well have the paradoxical effect of making this year’s programming accessible to more people than ever before. Not content to follow Sundance, which went totally virtual this season, the SBIFF will also feature safe, socially distanced film viewing at two purpose-built drive-in theaters located in the waterfront parking lots owned by Santa Barbara City College across from Leadbetter Beach. These facilities, which can hold 50 cars each, will be outfitted with state-of-the-art LED screens capable of showing films in daylight, something that few filmgoers anywhere will have ever experienced.
Last week, I connected over Zoom with Roger Durling, the festival’s charismatic executive director, and Claire Waterhouse, education coordinator, for a lively conversation about what to expect and how this unusual edition of the festival came to be. What follows is a small sample of the talk, lightly edited and significantly condensed.
This has to have been the work of many weeks, deciding when and how to hold this year’s festival. What was that process like?
Roger Durling: We did several scenarios throughout the year. There were multiple versions that included hoping that by April, there was going to be some sort of indoor activity. We were hoping for 75 percent or 50 percent occupancy, right? Which was way too optimistic. Although we always knew that it would be a hybrid, and that the virtual aspect was going to be part of it, that was the least desirable of the options. We wanted connectivity, but we hoped to save the in-person experience in some form. One of the quixotic ideas was to use local parks. We had gone through the renderings and the pricing in using Alameda Park and other venues like that with tents and flooring and socially distanced seating outdoors. We worked closely with the city on this.
It was around Thanksgiving or early December when we started to understand that there was no way our plan was going to succeed and that we needed to think of something else. I didn’t like the idea of retreating.
When did you come up with the idea for the drive-ins?
RD: After 24 hours of crying on my pillow and just being distraught, we started talking about the drive-in in Goleta. I love Goleta — I mean, I live in Goleta — but the drive-in there is landlocked, and landlocked didn’t feel festive. That’s when we started talking about the waterfront, and one of the staff — I believe it was Mickey [Duzdevich, senior programmer] — came up with the idea of contacting the college. And City College was great; they jumped right in, even before the city issued the permits. It was surreal.
So you plan to build two drive-in theaters at the beach. How will that work?
RD: It’s going to be free. It’s a happy, happy solution being that it always had to be free. We just felt it was the right thing to do, you know, to send a message about optimism and in gratitude. The online stuff is all paid for. You pay, you get passes and single tickets for online, but the drive-in, which is costing us quite a lot, will be free. It feels like the only way to go.
The great tributes this year, honoring such artists as Carey Mulligan, Bill Murray, and Sacha Baron Cohen — those will all be exclusively online. How do you feel about that? Are you certain that, after a year off, people will come back to the theaters in person when it is safe to do so?
RD: All throughout history, we’ve always gravitated to live theatre, we’ve always gravitated to communal experiences, and that cannot be erased by one year of the pandemic. No, it’s too ingrained in our psyche.
The 36th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival begins on Wednesday, March 31. For tickets and information, visit sbiff.org.