Santa Barbara Brings Drive-In Screenings, Virtual Panels to Annual Fest

Scott Feinberg, The Hollywood Reporter | Reference Source


In 2020, one of the film industry's last major in-person gatherings before the pandemic struck was the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The annual 10-day event, held two hours north of Los Angeles along the picturesque "American Riviera," regularly attracts a phalanx of top Oscar contenders. Despite everything that's happened since, festival executive director Roger Durling promises that the fest's 36th edition will hold its own in comparison to the previous 17 over which he has presided. The Panama-born film lover, a dynamic character known for his colorful hairstyles and distinctive sartorial flair, is populating the awards-season standard with drive-in screenings and virtual tributes and panels over more than a week.

How did you grow SBIFF into an important awards-season stop?

When I took over, it was just a small little regional film festival that nobody paid attention to, but then we shifted the dates to roughly coincide with the Oscar nominations. My first year, we held tributes to Peter Jackson and Charlize Theron en route to their Oscar wins. It gave the festival an identity.

In addition to the location and dates, talent is also drawn by Santa Barbara's high concentration of Academy members, right?

There are approximately 200 Academy members whose primary address is in Santa Barbara and quite a few more who have a home and spend quite a bit of time here. Not many places outside of Los Angeles and New York have more. Regulars at the fest include Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Bridges; Andy Davis, who directed The Fugitive; and lots of others.

When the pandemic hit after last year's festival, how did it impact your planning for this year's edition?

We immediately began making plans to do a lot of it online — and we got a lot of practice, because we host screenings and Q&As year-round at our art house, the Riviera Theatre, and obviously had to shift the way we do those as well. If you look at our YouTube channel, you will see that we did about 60 virtual Q&As, including ones with just about all of this year's Oscar nominees — from Andra Day to Chloé Zhao to David Fincher to Garrett Bradley to Thomas Vinterberg to Leslie Odom Jr. to Emerald Fennell to the Minari gang. The list goes on …

Did you ever consider not holding the festival if it couldn't be done in person? The fest normally uses venues like the Arlington Theatre, which seats more than 2,000, packed to the gills.

No, never. Film festivals are all about continuity and connectivity, and so it was imperative that we proceed in some form. We considered five different scenarios, from filling our venues to just 25 percent capacity to doing it entirely virtually. I didn't want to do just virtual, so we began to focus on having a drive-in component. The local drive-in is landlocked, but I wanted to do something that felt really festive, so we are building two drive-ins in the parking lots by the ocean at Santa Barbara City College — quite an enterprise, but it certainly has everyone talking — and we are going to offer free screenings there. We're also going to have a big online component. All of the films that are part of this year's festival will be shown at the drive-in and online, and we'll be holding our tributes and panels online, too.

Who are some of the big names participating in this year's tributes?

Quite early on, we made the bold but ultimately correct decision to name Sacha Baron Cohen as the performer of the year recipient, given his incredible work in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — which couldn't be more different. And, of course, we'll also have an evening with four of the five nominated directors and writers from nine of the 10 screenplay nominees.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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