Santa Barbara Film Fest Goes al Fresco With Drive-In Screenings

Early on during the pandemic, it became obvious to Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival executive director Roger Durling that the 36th edition of the festival would be like no other, and not in a good way. But he was hoping that by pushing the event back more than three months from mid-January to spring 2021, he’d be able to mount a hybrid event with some form of indoor screenings.

When that became unfeasible, he pivoted to a seated, socially distanced outdoor event at a Santa Barbara park. Build-out plans were drawn up and budgets were calculated. Then California experienced a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases in November, and it became clear that the city would never approve their permit request.

“For 24 hours, I was pretty distraught,” recalls Durling. Then someone suggested turning the parking lots at Santa Barbara City College into a drive-in, “and all of a sudden it became super-exciting. It’s right on the ocean, with quite a spectacular view. And that felt optimistic and festive.”

The parking lots have been outfitted with a pair of stadium-size LED screens that SBIFF will use to unspool more than 80 films to viewers in socially distanced autos free of charge (but with reservations required) during the fest’s March 31 to April 10 run. Those unable to attend in-person will be able to view the festival’s lineup, which includes 47 world premieres and 37 U.S. premieres from 45 countries, online with the purchase of a ticket or a festival pass.

The fest will kick off with the March 31 opening-night premiere of director Aaron Maurer’s documentary “Invisible Valley,” which follows a diverse collection of people in California’s Coachella Valley, from young music festivalgoers to undocumented farmworkers, over the course of a year. It will close on April 10 with a program of documentary shorts by local Santa Barbara filmmakers exploring such subjects as the Chumash people’s annual trip to their historic village and a woman’s efforts to restore ecosystems with her flock of sheep.

The films will get a minimum of one free drive-in screening and be available for streaming for the entire 10 days of the festival. However, there are limitations: some titles will have geo-locks allowing access only in certain regions (e.g., the U.S. or California), and once viewers start a movie, they’ll have a 48-hour window to watch it.

“A lot of the bigger films wanted to be in-person only,” says SBIFF senior programmer Mickey Duzdevich. “But, obviously, they came around because there was no other option.”

SBIFF events have long been considered an important stop on the run-up to the Academy Awards, and this year the fest presciently picked several honorees who wound up receiving Oscar nominations, including three of the five up for lead actress — Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman), Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”), who’ll be receiving the Cinema Vanguard Award — along with Riz Ahmed (lead actor, “Sound of Metal”), Amanda Seyfried (supporting actress, “Mank”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (adapted screenplay, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”; supporting actor, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”).

Other honorees include Bill Murray (Maltin Modern Master Award, April 2) and Delroy Lindo (American Riviera Award, April 8), along with Maria Bakalova, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Sidney Flanigan, Tahar Rahim and Zendaya, who will be joining Ahmed, Day and Kirby as honorees at the Virtuoso Awards on April 3.

The fest will also host Variety’s seventh annual Artisans Awards on April 5, honoring editor Alan Baumgarten; supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker; costume designer Alexandra Byrne; production designer Donald Graham Burt and set decorator Jan Pascale; VFX supervisor Sean Faden; hair department head Mia Neal; songwriter-actor Leslie Odom Jr.; cinematographer Joshua James Richards; and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. They are all scheduled to participate in a conversation moderated by Jazz Tangcay, Variety senior artisans editor.

Due to the pandemic, none of the honorees will be attending in-person. Instead, they’ll participate from their respective locations via Zoom. But the good news is that the SBIFF crew are already experienced hands when it comes to remote video teleconferencing, having used it for cast and crew Q&As for some 60 screenings since their year-round film program (normally held at the Riviera Theater) was forced to go virtual in March 2020.

As depressing as this might seem in the short-term, it could work to the advantage of SBIFF and other fests going forward, because the pandemic has made both audiences and honorees more accepting of remote participation. It’s thus more feasible for the fest to engage people stuck on remote film shoots or otherwise unable to attend in-person.

And that’s not the only upside, according to Durling.

“There’s a certain degree of intimacy I’ve found interviewing Zoom,” says Durling. “You don’t have other distractions, so you’re able to zero-in and focus.”

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