Santa Barbara International Film Festival Turns 25

Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Historic theaters like the Arlington showcase films during the SBIFF.

In the trailer for this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, currently running now through this Sunday, February 14, founder Phyllis de Picciotto admits that the whole idea was totally contrived—a ploy to get some tourist dollars into the city during a traditionally slow time of year. For years, the festival coasted, and, by the time Roger Durling took the reins as Executive Director seven years ago, it was running on fumes. But Durling put the pedal to the metal. And over the course of his tenure, he has gained a reputation as a Hollywood savant, reliably booking a solid line-up of award contenders year after year, and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has become known as a showcase for Academy Award frontrunners. In fact, Durling’s senses are so attuned, some have begun to wonder if Hollywood has come to view an invitation to the SBIFF as auspicious, a foreshadowing of Oscar gold. (Or, in the case of Al Gore three years ago, a nod from the Nobel Prize Committee.) And the timing turned out to be perfect: nestled in between Sundance and the Academy Awards, the SBIFF catches film lovers right at the crescendo of the cinematic calendar—and this year, the roster is absolutely appropriate for a silver anniversary celebration.

“The 25th is our biggest festival yet,” said Durling. “Any year that we’re able to bring talent on the level of James Cameron, Sandra Bullock, Kathryn Bigelow, Julianne Moore, and Quentin Tarantino—among others—is a great year, but it has made this year especially celebratory.”

Beyond the high-profile tributes and industry panels, though, much of the programming takes its cues from the elements that characterize Santa Barbara itself: among them are the International Sidebar, the Spanish/Latin American Cinema Series and the To The MAXX Series, a local favorite which engages Santa Barbara’s extreme athletes and regularly draws out its tight-knit surfer community. Taken as a whole, this year’s festival comprises 200 films, 18 world premieres, 28 U.S. premieres, foreign films from 45 countries, and 30 Oscar nominees.

Santa Barbara International Film Festival Opening Night

Opening night. Photo: Shannon Kelley Gould

Of course, the festival is about more than the films. The parties are legendary, taking place everywhere from world-class resorts including the Four Seasons Biltmore and the Bacara to the subterranean depths of an under-construction parking garage. And while, when it comes to happy hour, Santa Barbara’s known far more for its vineyards than its potato fields, the SBIFF is all about the vodka, due in no small part to Durling’s well-documented fondness for the stuff. In fact, a couple of years ago, Durling posted a love letter to Chopin vodka on his blog. As fate would have it, a Google alert landed that post in front of the eyes of Sarah Gorvitz, Brand Manager for Chopin vodka. And thus was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Chopin is now a huge sponsor of the festival, but rather than simply lending their logo, they have worked to cultivate their presence and engage the Santa Barbara community: this year marks the second the brand has spearheaded a bartending battle to crown the official cocktail of the SBIFF. The winner, the Tarantini, was created by Grant Danely, of the Tydes at the Biltmore’s Coral Casino, where it’s now on the menu. (When Quentin Tarantino was in town last weekend for the Directors Panel, he sampled the recipe—and deemed it… not inglorious.)

As de Picciotto hoped 25 years ago, the festival brings the city to life during the very depths of the winter doldrums, offering a great excuse to get out and get a taste of what Santa Barbara’s foodie scene has to offer—and maybe a glimpse of a celeb or two while you’re at it. Near the Lobero Theater, Julienne has been quietly making a name for itself (Anthony Bourdain gave it some props after hitting it up while in town last year) as a rising star, where a conscientious philosophy of sustainability and locally sourced ingredients meets rock-star technique.

Bar at Cafe Luck, Santa Barbara

Bar at Cafe Luck. Photo: Shannon Kelley Gould

In that same neighborhood, you’ll also find Café Luck, Lucky Jeans founder Gene Montesano’s latest outpost, which boasts an impressive raw bar as well as bistro fare by executive chef David Rosner, previously of New York’s Balthazar—though the spot might not be known as much for the food as it is for the fact that it’s played host to the VIP after parties for several high-profile festival events, including this year’s tribute to James Cameron, and last year’s to Clint Eastwood. Closer to the Arlington theater, Opal is a favorite haunt of the lanyard-clad and, while the local urchin and chorizo-clams-sofrito dish around the corner at Hungry Cat are delicious, that hip little spot is best loved for its fresh cut cocktails, mixed with whatever’s currently bountiful at the farmer’s market.

25 years on, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has truly come into its own. Founder de Picciotto recalled that, once she got approved for that grant to start the festival way back in 1985, her immediate thought was: “Oh no! What have I gotten myself into?”

If only she knew.

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