Set to open on Feb. 7, the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival enters its 39th year with high stakes. Organizers must re-create past successes while forging new paths to keep proceedings fresh, keeping their eye on a mission to education while celebrating the power of film.
This year’s edition of the coastal festival will open with the world premiere of Matt Ogens and Joel Kachi Benson’s “Madu,” a Disney documentary about a young Nigerian whose ballet performance went viral online. It concludes with the world premiere of “Chosen Family,” directed by and starring Heather Graham, who also plans to attend with the cast.
In between, SBIFF will host many noteworthy film screenings and events. There are more than 200 films in this year’s lineup and, per programming director Claudia Puig, 70% of them will celebrate their U.S. or world premieres at the festival. That amounts to more than 75 feature films and over 45 shorts, in
addition to the multitude of other projects.
What’s more, 50% of all films are directed and/or made by women, points out executive director Roger Durling. That lineup includes Chelsea Peretti’s “First Time Female Director” and Jennifer Esposito’s “Fresh Kills.” There are additional themes that weave through their programming, such as a series of projects by or depicting Ukraine and its people, and a series of films in and about oceans.
Concurrent to the screenings, a series of Q&As spread across the festival’s 11 days feature multiple Oscar nominees offering industry insights in a variety of categories: There are separate events examining the work of scribes, producers and directors working not only in domestic live-action filmmaking, but the international and animated communities as well.
Additionally, a panel will examine the challenges of women working in the industry across a spectrum of disciplines. And in conjunction with festival partner Variety, senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay will moderate a panel featuring the publication’s artisans award recipients, including singer/ songwriters Billie Eilish and Finneas (“Barbie”), composer Ludwig Göransson (“Oppenheimer”) and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Killers of the Flower Moon”).
The fest kicked off its starry tributes Jan. 13, when “Barbie” star Ryan Gosling received the Kirk Douglas Award. “Oppenheimer” star Robert Downey Jr., “Maestro”‘s Bradley Cooper, “American Fiction” star Jeffrey Wright, “Nyad”‘s Annette Bening and “The Holdovers” star Paul Giamatti are among those being honored. This year’s Virtuosos event will honor breakout talent including Danielle Brooks from “The Color Purple,” “Rustin” star Colman Domingo and Lily Gladstone for her work on “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Durling emphasizes that intersectional diversity is his priority when locking in the festival’s schedule, films and honorees, a choice that reinforces the festival’s foundational principles to provide access to, and education about, the arts — for everyone.
“It is important to me. I’m a gay, Latino man who grew up in Panama, [and] I didn’t see that on the screen that often, so I am very, very conscious of championing films that are more encompassing,” he says. “It’s not a trend, it’s not because it’s fashionable.”
Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger, who helps select the Virtuosos award honorees and moderates the corresponding panel, keeps an eye on breakout talent for potential inclusion throughout the year.
“When I saw ‘The Holdovers’ last summer, halfway through the movie, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a definite Virtuoso,’ even before the movie was over,” Karger remembers.
Brooks, Oscar nominated for her work in Blitz Bazawule’s musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” called the lineup assembled by SBIFF “bananas. To be receiving this award among such talented individuals is a reminder to myself that I am right where I am supposed to be.”
Brooks notes that the recognition for this role is especially meaningful because of its impact on the lives of so many people who saw the film, which also stars Fantasia Barrino and Taraji P. Henson. “People are finding the courage to rekindle relationships, stand up for themselves or forgive someone who has wronged them,” she notes. “That is a beautiful thing when your art can transform reality.”
Durling says event attendance has evolved during the decades he’s been in charge, with popular panels now commanding 1,000-person venues to accommodate everyone.
SBIFF continues to expand its educational initiatives to support aspiring craftspeople — at any age. During “Mike’s Field Trip,” programmers transport close to 4,000 children from Title One schools for a film screening and conversation with its makers; this year’s speakers include “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” co-writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and “Elemental” executive producer Pete Docter. The festival even provides an advance study curriculum to help attending students prepare for the experience.
In years past, Durling relied upon ticket sales from celebrity events to cover the costs of educational programs. Now, finding sponsors and direct funding for them is easy. “Everything is on steroids [because] they’re growing and have a life of their own,” Durling tells Variety.
The fest runs until Feb. 17.