The Santa Barbara International Film Festival: Detached And Star-Crazy, But Worth It All The Same

Ah, Santa Barbara. Sitting amid bougainvillea-covered white walls at the surprisingly inexpensive Hotel Milo (formerly Oceana Hotel), just across from the gentle blue Pacific Ocean -- if also next door to the uncomfortably named Sambo's On the Beach -- there are few other places in Southern California I'd rather be.

It gets even better when you borrow one of the Milo's cruiser bikes and ride along, and then above, the area's broad beaches to stunning Shoreline Park. If you are ambitious, bike all the way north to I.V. (Isla Vista), home of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (if also a 2014 mass shooting).


The beauty of the Santa Barbara Film Festival (SBIFF) -- as opposed to Palm Springs and other Southern California fests -- is that you don't need a car to see the films. This boutique city of less than 90,000 is pedestrian-friendly. Unfortunately, like its similarly sized, if equally indulgent, southern neighbor Santa Monica, you will encounter your fair share of 60s acid casualties who got off the bus and never got back on.

Nevertheless, the groovy love vibe of the local serfs and the area's cooler micro-climate will make you think you are in the Haight in '68. Except you are not. Far from it. This is where SF freaks went "bourgeois bohemian." Translation: homeless-enabling pot connoisseurs, who are decidedly cultish about their yoga, sustainable agriculture, fine wine, polo ponies and real estate. You may want to slap, or at least tickle, some the area's uptight bourgeois bohos, but please don't (they keep SBIFF afloat).


If you can overlook the patronizing, divorcees-who-brunch attitude you occasionally encounter here, you will love your visit to the American Riviera. Start your morning with a coffee at the Anacapa Street location of the modern, yet friendly, French Press Fine Coffee and Tea, which Santa Barbara environmental portrait photographer Payam Rahimian turned me onto years ago. Here you will easily meet a beautiful, laid back local. Moreover he or she just might be the son or daughter of a Fortune 500 CEO with a vacation house in nearby Summerland or Montecito -- where Oprah has water trucked in during this historic California drought to feed her thirsty Promised Land compound -- or Carpinteria, where I stop en route to Santa Barbara to lunch at the outstanding Sly's (a favorite haunt of my late Santa Barbara friend Christopher Marks), followed by a dip in Carp's calm beach waters.

From French Press, head over to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, one of the more elegant Spanish Revival buildings in the nation. From the Courthouse, journey to the downtown location of Santa Barbara's very own Backyard Bowls for their one-of-kind whole grain breakfast porridges.


End your morning with a drive along East Camino Cielo Road, far above Santa Barbara up to 4,000 feet elevation in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and hike around the Lizard's Mouth trail to release some endorphins before the long sit ahead.

Now you are ready to see some cinema. And, in this regard, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival does not disappoint. With 200 films on tap, the selection here is among the best of all the Southern California film festivals.


For example, it was at SBIFF that I saw my favorite film of 2012 (the five-hour-plus Indian opus, Gangs of Wasseypur) and my second favorite film of 2013 (Spain's underrated Cannibal).


Programmer Michael Albright creates this rich repertoire by doing his best to acquire the popular films from earlier festivals (including Sundance) and bring them to SBIFF. Moreover, SBIFF works hard to build support for the festival all year long, with Sunday silent film screenings at the historic Arlington Theater (with live musical accompaniment from the Wonder Morton Pipe Organ, one of five left in the world), and a series of programs to highlight local student filmmakers.

Unfortunately, like The Palm Springs International Film Festival (previously featured in this round-up of the Best SoCal Film Fests), SBIFF suffers from being too close to the film industry's L.A. vortex. During my two visits, the support staff here was neither outgoing nor, at times, even helpful. In particular, the service from the demanding, curt and wholly unprofessional PR firm -- ostensibly hired to help visiting journalists navigate the festival -- was not only obstreperous, but also nasty. It's as if they were channeling the tired elitism of Santa Barbara's bohemian bourgeoisie.

This attitude was in stark contrast to the relaxed and friendly support one gets at lesser known festivals farther from the industry's center -- such as The Sonoma International Film Festival and the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival - where customer service (from unpaid volunteers no less!) is top notch.

Even with these hiccups, the magic and mystery of Santa Barbara compensates in unexpected ways. For instance, there is nothing like walking down State Street late night after seeing an evocative foreign film. The air is crisp and clean, and the mood cinematic. It's no wonder that Santa Barbara was home to the first major Hollywood film studio, Flying A, back in 1910.


That said, if SBIFF wants to entice film fans from around the world, it needs to better utilize the area's natural and cultural landmarks. There needs to be less celebrity fawning - leave that cliche exercise in gauche vapidity to the Academy Awards - and more in the way of familiarization tours for filmmakers and VIPs, screenings in nontraditional venues, wine-tastings ala Sideways (which my Omaha Creighton Prep compadre Alexander Payne set in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley), plus a smorgasbord of the best in organic meat, wine and produce that the bountiful Santa Barbara region has to offer.

I fully get that when executive director Roger Durling took over SBIFF in 2002, attendance was declining. However, that doesn't mean you need to sell your festival soul to Hollywood. After all, does Jane Fonda really need another lifetime achievement award?

My humble recommendation: lose the emphasis on being a pre-Oscar celebrity cattle call, and let the natural goodness of the festival's volunteers and supporters -- such as the wonderful Lynda Weinman, founder of Carpinteria-based ed tech sensation -- shine through. It's perfectly okay to be a lovely and welcoming regional festival, instead of another stalking horse for the studios.


Above all else, SBIFF needs a quiet, comfortable, and centrally located gathering spot for filmmakers, press and VIP pass holders, where a warm sense of community could form around the area's bountiful harvest. Instead, for all of Santa Barbara's sensuous, sumptuous, if at times cheesy, charm, its namesake festival feels oddly cold, detached, harsh and lonely.

Nevertheless, the selection of films continues to be strong year after year. And for that reason, you should make SBIFF another pit stop on your SoCal film festival tour.

- James Marshall Crotty covers the intersection of travel, culture and politics. To learn more, visit