San Luis Obispo International Film Festival 2017: It’s Quaint at First Glance, but SLO Has a Lot Going On

Long after the boysenberry aromas of a San Luis Obispo-made Zinfandel were washed from my palate, the local flavor of the sleepy Californian Central Coast town’s 23rd international film festival persisted in my sense memory.

As with its distinctive wine, SLOIFF’s careful cultivation of its supporting independent arts community has made the event better as it’s aged.

The numbers don’t lie: From 2016 to 2017, attendance grew 18 percent from 9,750 people to 11,500; total ticket sales rose 38 percent; festival pass sales shot up by 42 percent and revenue from entry fees leapt by 80 percent.

So, what’s turning folks out? That SLO itself is almost eerily devoid of litter, seemingly untouched by time, is telling about the pride the area fosters, and the fact that 70 percent of the festival’s attendees in 2017 hail from San Luis Obispo County speaks volumes about the regional resources that Festival Director Wendy Eidson and her team have come to rely upon to keep things flowing and growing. A sense of the homegrown pervaded every corner of SLOIFF, from its spotlight on works by myriad municipal moviemakers in its Central Coast Filmmaker Showcase, to the hands-on involvement of director/cinematographer/Creston resident Todd Fisher (brother of the late Carrie) in multiple events, to its honoring of neighborhood-to-Hollywood heroes like Josh Brolin, a self-described “ranch kid” raised in SLO County’s town of Templeton who received this year’s King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking.

King Vidor Award recipient Josh Brolin chats with Ben Mankiewicz at SLOIFF 2017. Photograph by Molly Kiely

Brolin’s short directorial debut, “X,” was featured at SLOIFF in 2008, and that same year he joined the festival’s advisory board, on which he continues to serve as a member. “He comes as a local. He doesn’t come as a movie star,” Eidson told SLO newspaper The Tribune shortly after announcing him as recipient of the honor in January.

SLOIFF’s programming played up the cultural staples that have shaped the county’s identity as well, as its centerpiece film, the equestrian documentary Down the Fence, had its world premiere before a capacity crowd at the 850-seat Art Deco Fremont Theatre. Director MJ Isakson’s film, which took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature on closing night, stirred the hearts of cowboy-hat-donning crowds whose reverence for horse training has deep roots that can be traced back to the early California missions.

Despite the inherent risk of being limited by its townie fever as much as it is strengthened by it, both the reach of the festival’s internationality and its diversity of voices have expanded considerably, as well. Films on human rights crises in Bosnia and Ukraine (My Mother’s Wound and Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine) and a Spanish short comedy about family and mortality (“The Whole World”), among others, took home prizes in their respective competition categories.

As one of the minority fest-goers not from SLO, my feeling about the town upon arrival was that things were almost too quiet. Yet, L.A.-bound on closing night, I left convinced that this hushed, indie-friendly spot not only had a lot to offer, but a lot to say. MM

San Louis Obispo Film Festival 2017 ran March 14-19, 2017.  This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.  Top image photographed by Molly Kiely: (L-R) Variety editor Jenelle Riley, Todd Fisher and wife Catherine at the SLOIFF screening of Bright Lights, about Fisher’s mother (Debbie Reynolds) and sister Carrie.

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