Santa Barbara International Film Festival

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25th edition of festival begins Feb. 4

When the 25th Santa Barbara International Film Festival offered director Derek Magyar the chance to world premiere his feature debut "Flying Lessons" as part of the opening-night festivities, he eagerly accepted -- even though that meant ruling out any chance of premiering at Sundance.

"Not that I don't think Sundance is a fantastic place," he says, "but the fact that we're able to open this festival with a film that was shot in this community (it was filmed in the Santa Ynez Valley), I just think it's meant to be."

"Meant to be" doesn't mean Magyar has agreed to be a big fish in a small pond: In recent years, SBIFF has attracted marquee names hitting career peaks, and this year director James Cameron, riding high with "Avatar," will be honored with the Modern Master Award, while Sandra Bullock (fresh off "The Blind Side") will pick up the American Riviera Award. Director Kathryn Bigelow is also being honored as director of the year for "The Hurt Locker." Other honorees include Julianne Moore (Montecito Award), Vera Farmiga (Cinema Vanguard Award) and Colin Firth (Outstanding Performance of the Year for "A Single Man").

Even Quentin Tarantino will be on hand to screen Kirk Douglas' 1957 film "Posse" -- appropriately, since Tarantino last year received the fest's Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film. With Tarantino, Cameron and Bigelow, that means SBIFF will potentially have three of this year's five DGA Awards film directing nominees on hand.

So why are they prepared to trek 90 miles north of L.A.?

"Santa Barbara is perfectly timed, right after the (Oscar) nominations are announced," says journalist Pete Hammond, who has moderated various panels for the fest. "The Hollywood presence is there, too, living in Montecito and the surrounding areas. You have 30-50 (Academy) voters in that area seeing the headlines in the local newspaper. They knock Obama off the front page for Mickey Rourke."

Maggie Grace in "Flying Lessons"

Making that happen isn't easy. And this year's SBIFF has been a particular challenge for executive director Roger Durling.

"I'll be blunt," he says, "I'm just happy we survived this year, with the economic turmoil that's happening out there, and we're grateful to be able to put together a pretty big 25th anniversary celebration."

In a time of deep declines in corporate sponsorship, SBIFF has added Coca-Cola and Nestle to its list of branding partners, which includes such longtime supporters as Lucky Brand Jeans and Chopin Vodka. How Durling has done that may offer tips to other festival directors.

"We tailor each sponsorship to each partner," Durling explains. "Lucky Brand Jeans is always associated with the Modern Master Award, which last year went to Clint Eastwood. They've branded themselves with the award. The American Riviera Award is always sponsored by Chopin. Bringing in the big stars attracts the media and the companies that want to be associated with those names, and in return I'm able to subsidize these other programs."

As "Flying Lessons" shows, SBIFF is committed to choosing programming that speaks directly to the local community as a whole, not just potential Oscar voters. To this effect, it has long-running special sections dedicated to surf movies, extreme sports (the "To the Maxxx" sidebar), and Latino films ("Latino CineMedia" is aimed in part at the 35% of the community that is Latino).

The festival gets significant participation from industryites who live in the area, including actor Tim Matheson ("Animal House"), who helps make the selections for the Asian film sidebar; underwater cinematographer Mike deGruy, who programs the nature film section "Reel Nature"; and director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive"), who has been a fixture on the jury for the fest's Social Justice Film Awards, given to documentary films.

"It gives me such an interesting perspective on the world," Davis says. "I've just been asked to do a film in China, and I have some insights into China that I got from some of the documentaries I've seen."

The festival also has several programs targeting local youth, including the AppleBox Family Film Festival, 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting, and Field Trip to the Movies. Cameron will be the special guest this year -- but not because of "Avatar."

"We're going to show Jim's 3D documentary 'Aliens of the Deep,' " deGruy says. "Then Jim will come out and we'll field questions and let him talk."