Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The annual event has 200 reasons (and more) to attend -- but most ticketholders will show up for the sea-view preview of the Oscar race.

Santa Barbara International Film Festival executive director Roger Durling might just be one of the most prescient men working in the industry. Last summer, he was convinced that Helen Mirren's performance in Miramax's "The Queen" and Forest Whitaker's starring turn in Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" would have awards-season voters swooning. So, he began thinking about tributes to both actors.

"My staff was skeptical!" he recalls. "Slowly but surely, I've been getting validation, however."

Durling is not only earning praise for his Oscar prognostication, but he's generating significant buzz about the way in which he has elevated the festival's profile since taking the executive director job in 2003. Santa Barbara, running through Feb. 4, is celebrating its 22nd anniversary this year and has become an important showcase for Oscar campaigners optimistic that a change of scenery might help voters remember their films more fondly come balloting time.

"It's another way to get members to focus on certain films or actors or filmmakers," says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, whose 2003 Newmarket film "Monster" earned an award for star Charlize Theron at Santa Barbara just weeks before the actress claimed her Oscar for the same performance. "It definitely plays a role in the awards season."

"It's all about putting a film on a certain track that people associate with award-caliber films -- that's where Santa Barbara fits in," adds ThinkFilm vp acquisitions Daniel Katz, who will bring the indie distributor's "Half Nelson," starring first-time Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling, to the event.

Additionally, the festival presents awards to established talent and to newcomers, with two lucrative prizes going to independent feature filmmakers; apart from screenings of aspiring Oscar winners, the lineup includes 28 world premieres, 18 U.S. premieres and features films from more than 40 countries.

Of course, Hollywood glitz is only one aspect of Santa Barbara, which, on average, draws 100,000 attendees -- half of them out-of-towners -- and, according to 2005 figures, brings an estimated $9 million in tax revenue to the county. Mindful of the event's impact on residents, Durling added three programs -- Latino CineMedia, Reel Nature: A Nature World Film Series and the To the Maxxx Sidebar -- to reflect, respectively, the large Hispanic, environmentally conscious and outdoor-sports-loving interests of many locals.

But it was primarily to reach another group of Santa Barbara inhabitants -- the many Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and crafts-guild members who retired to the area or who own second homes there -- that he shifted the festival's date from its original late-spring berth to its current pre-Oscar position. That decision, Durling says, "gave us a strong national purpose. I wanted to see what I could do to make this festival national and get notoriety."

This year, Santa Barbara opens with MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s Edie Sedgwick biopic "Factory Girl," directed by George Hickenlooper, with Samuel Goldwyn Films/Roadside Attractions' historical drama "Amazing Grace," from Santa Barbara's first guest director Michael Apted, serving as the centerpiece and Yari Film Group's screwball comedy "Gray Matters," from writer-director Sue Kramer, closing the event.

To Samuel Goldwyn president Meyer Gottlieb, launching "Grace" theatrically at Santa Barbara comes with particular benefits -- including an Apted-centered "Conversations With ..." panel and a special screening of the director's 2006 First Run Features documentary "49 Up" -- not to mention free press coverage.

"You can't find a better venue than a festival with a discriminating, movie-loving audience, and you hope that the press sees it in the same venue so they can better appreciate how the picture plays," Gottlieb says. "The L.A. papers cover it, which is very important to us, so even though this is in a smaller community, it gets national visibility."

Fox Searchlight co-chief operating officer Nancy Utley, who is bringing the distributor's drama "Notes on a Scandal" to Santa Barbara, says that the festival audience's reaction can prove invaluable. "Any time you put people from the film in front of moviegoers, they develop that special connection to the movie where they feel like they're a part of it, and they tend to get evangelical for us," Utley says. "They tell everybody they know and their family and friends in other cities."

Some even use Santa Barbara as a marketplace -- Magnolia Pictures head of acquisitions Tom Quinn says his company purchased "Woman: Thou Art Loosed" there in 2004. "I'm not sure Santa Barbara was the first place you'd think to premiere that kind of film, but it played very well there," he recalls. "It's a very art-centric audience motivated by reviews. If something plays well there, you can tap into what might happen in a specialized marketplace."

For Durling, it doesn't really matter why someone might come to Santa Barbara -- just as long as they do. Even the A-list stars he so carefully lines up, he admits, are just very attractive window dressing. "In retail, you put the best things up front, in the window, and that's what gets you press and sponsors and people excited and buying tickets," he says. "My job is to make sure the programming behind the glittering facade has meat and potatoes.

"Having someone who is hot because of Oscar -- that's the carrot in front of the carriage," he continues. "It's going to sell tickets. Then, once they're in the door, it's like a flytrap. You lure them into the stuff that's more nutritious for them."

In good company
Six names, five awards -- everyone's a winner at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Helen Mirren
Miramax's "The Queen"
Receiving: The Outstanding Performance Award (Friday)
Presented By: William H. Macy
"There's no doubt that if there's one outstanding performance, male or female, this year, it's Helen Mirren in 'The Queen,'" the festival's executive director Roger Durling says. "Three minutes into the film, you feel like Elizabeth II has stepped into the role. It's almost like a documentary; it's alchemy, what she's done with this role."
Will Smith
Sony's "The Pursuit of Happyness"
Receiving: The Modern Master Award (Saturday)
Presented By: Tom Cruise
"This is the centerpiece of the festival," Durling says. "It goes to a Renaissance man -- we wouldn't give it to someone who just acts. Will Smith is at the peak of his powers; he's a modern Renaissance man."
Bill Condon
Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls"
Receiving: The Montecito Award (Monday)
Presented by: Jennifer Hudson (tentative)
"The Montecito Award goes to a director or actor who has created two works of art that feel like classic examples of filmmaking. With (1998's) 'Gods and Monsters' and (2004's) 'Kinsey' and now with 'Dreamgirls,' he has demonstrated he's an A-list director and a terrific artist," Durling says.
Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim
Paramount Vantage's "An Inconvenient Truth"
Receiving: The Sir David Attenborough Award (Feb. 2)
Presented By: James Cameron
"We instituted this award three years ago for nature filmmaking excellence," Durling says. "No better film this year exemplifies nature filmmaking than this documentary. It's such an important film -- there is nothing more important this year in that respect."
Forest Whitaker
Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland"
Receiving: The American Riviera Award (Feb. 3)
Presented by: Sandra Bullock
"We give this to someone who's made a dent in American cinema, people who are young but who have had a long career already," Durling says. "This is (Whitaker's) year -- he's always done incredibly good, steady work, but now he's stepped out of the sidelines, and he's front and center."