A chilly wind is whipping around Chapala Street, and Roger Durling — the well-known and charismatic director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival — is dodging distractions in the office by walking briskly to a nearby coffeehouse while trying to explain the latest twists in the organism he heads. Part of his challenge in this, his fourth year at the helm, was to respond to the twin sisters of huge acclaim and street-level dissonance regarding last year’s festival.
On one hand, the festival, kicking off its 22nd anniversary event tonight with a screening of Factory Girl, could rightfully glow and gloat by last year’s festival, which was one of its strongest showings yet. On the other hand, word on the street was less ecstatic, with complaints about catering to the industry and elitism, all at the expense of the Santa Barbara community. Long lines, restricted access for those without VIP passes, and other problems boiled over into the public discourse. There was even a venting spot set up on the Web, santabarbarafilmfestivalsucks.com (since appropriated by SBIFF).
Of course, any cultural entity worth its salt has to accept discord and controversy, almost as a sign of being taken seriously. It is also an inherent problem, and growing pain, faced by successful film festivals. But as Durling said of last year’s chorus of boos beneath the kudos, “I took it to heart. It really bothered me that there were these complaints, and we’ve taken steps to work on those problems.” Among the steps taken are a more flexible program grid, the use of more theaters, and the hiring of a managing director to specifically wrestle with problems arising during the festival.
“It’s a real high-wire act,” Durling admitted, “trying to balance the local and the national aspects of this festival.” As he has said in the past, Durling is interested in making SBIFF a festival with something for everybody. “You should not be elitist,” he said. “Any tastes should be addressed somehow.” He paused and added, “I want this to be the Target of film festivals.”
To that end, one could say SBIFF is a diversified mosaic of many festivals: Separate sections are devoted to feature films, documentaries, and short films.
But the programming grid also extends to specialty zones including nature films (Reel Nature, programmed by Mike DeGruy), sports films (To the Maxxx, programmed by Russ Spencer), and the work of homegrown filmmakers. Tonight’s gala opener, Factory Girl, in fact, has a strong local angle in that its subject, Warholian tragic legend Edie Sedgwick (as in the Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Ynez), was born and died in Santa Barbara. The festival’s closer, Gray Matters, is an offbeat romantic comedy with Heather Graham, and the Centerpiece screening is of Michael Apted’s new Amazing Grace, with Apted — director of 49 Up and the festival’s first “guest director” — hanging around for one of the festival’s several “Conversation with …” evenings.
As Durling speaks about the upcoming SBIFF, which he called “the strongest festival yet,” he dons his shades in a Starbucks right by the Arlington, pressing flesh and exchanging greetings with those who recognize him. Durling is the most public and approachable of the several directors in SBIFF’s history, following the extended tenures of Phyllis dePicciotto and Renee Missell, and a fleeting one-year fling with John Fitzgerald. In a sense, Durling was what the festival needed to bump up a level or three in its reputation, bringing both a newcomer’s passion and increasing administrative savvy to the gig, not to mention an amiable approach that allows him to work well with others.
It has long since been established that the SBIFF is the plum cultural festival in Santa Barbara. From its first year, with Jimmy Stewart in town for a tribute, it has been a festival happy to “go Hollywood,” while also firmly acknowledging the importance of foreign and art cinema. This year’s model includes tributes to Will (The Pursuit of Happyness) Smith, Helen (The Queen) Mirren, Forest (Last King of Scotland) Whitaker, Bill (Dreamgirls) Condon, and Al Gore and David Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth fame.
But for its 2007 edition, SBIFF might be said to have gone eastward, getting valuable nods of attention, approval, and actual patronage from stalwart East Coast sources. On December 15 of last year, readers of the New York Times might have been surprised to find a photograph of the Arlington Theatre in a story on strong up-and-comers in the film festival scene, bubbling under the reigning domestic festivals Sundance, New York, and Telluride. Of the several mentioned in the article, SBIFF was considered a festival with which to reckon. To boot, the festival has been given official sponsorship by the august New Yorker — a k a the only-magazine-that-matters, for many.
The New Yorker nod of approval came after earlier negotiations with Vanity Fair and with the help of Gene Montesano, the head of well-known Lucky Brand Jeans, in-town restaurateur, and an avid supporter and boardmember of the festival. While the Vanity Fair sponsorship never came to pass, a contingent from the New Yorker visited the festival last year and was sufficiently impressed to sign on this year.
Part of Durling’s strategy during his time at the helm has been to capitalize on timing. By moving the festival up in the year to late January/early February, it’s become a magnet for Oscar contenders, who happily head up the coast to Santa Barbara. It’s a win-win situation.
In addition, SBIFF’s new calendar position, just following the Sundance Festival, also basks in the afterglow of that event. “You can’t go against Sundance,” Durling said. He has sought to get better American films — always the weakest link in the festival programming throughout the years — by luring American films screened at Sundance to then make the trip to Santa Barbara, the next festival on the calendar. Twenty of this year’s films will be making the trip directly from Sundance.
Back in his office at the buzzing festival’s HQ, Durling is surrounded by awards, framed press clips, and a huge poster for the great Jacques Tati film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, his favorite film. On his desktop computer, Durling calls up the new festival trailer, which will run before each screening during the 11-day affair. In it, a redheaded woman dances and writhes, clad in slithering celluloid, and — unlike earlier festival trailers — with nary a palm tree in sight. It is sleek, titillating, and smart, qualities to which the festival itself aspires.
“I used to go into a depression after each festival,” Durling confessed, “feeling like I had to build it all over again. After four years of this, I know there’s a strong foundation and that it will continue. Continuity is the key word.”
• Why Will Smith Is a Modern Master by Starshine Roshell
• A Preview of the Panels by Josef Woodard
• A Conversation with Bill Condon, director of Dreamgirls by Charles Donelan
• Helen Mirren Wins SBIFF’s Outstanding Performance Award by Charles Donelan
• The Legacy of Spanish Film by Felicia M. Tomasko
• Conversations With … Evenings by Josef Woodard
• An Interview with Michael Apted by Josef Woodard
• To the Maxxx Films by Ethan Stewart
• Reel Nature - The Ultimate Reality Show by Felicia M. Tomasko
• A Look at Santa Barbara-based Filmmakers by Hannah Tennant-Moore
• Reality Film-making by Matt Kettman
• Films We’ll See for the First Time by D.J. Palladino
• East x West Events by D.J. Palladino