The Santa Barbara International Film Festival has some built-in advantages: It takes place in February, in the region known as the American Riviera, just weeks before the Oscars. That means it draws a steady stream of A-listers who make the short trek from Los Angeles to spend a few hours strolling beneath its Spanish Colonial rooftops, sampling from the local vineyards, enjoying the usually flawless Mediterranean climate.
This year, true to form, it will draw a cavalcade of Oscar contenders including Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Jeffrey Wright, Bradley Cooper, Paul Giamatti, Annette Benning, Colman Domingo, Lily Gladstone, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Danielle Brooks. Santa Barbara includes a healthy bevy of Oscar voters, who won’t have to travel south to watch nominees talk about their craft. They’re drawn in large part by the work of Roger Durling, the highly regarded director of the 39-year-old event.
But weather, Oscar campaigns and location can’t account for all the festival’s success: There are also, you know, films. And much of the credit for the festival’s programming success goes to Claudia Puig, the veteran USA Today film critic who was previously a writer for the Los Angeles Times.
When she left USA Today in 2015, after 15 years of reviewing films for the paper, she had three goals: to teach at the college level, to write speeches, and to program a film festival. She did the first two, and also worked on several festivals, including for Napa Valley and Mendocino — “my joke is that I was working my way through the wine country,” she says — the turned to AFI Fest.
“And then Roger just reached out to me about three years ago, and said, ‘Hey, are you interested?,” she recalls.
She was: She and her husband, both based in Los Angeles, had been considering a movie to Santa Barbara, and the possibility still remains. But she was also occupied by her duties as president of the L.A. Film Critics Association and her work as the film critic for Los Angeles’ beloved public radio station KPCC. Becoming the programming director the Santa Barbara Film Festival allowed her to stay in Los Angeles while keeping a strong presence up the coast.
“Santa Barbara is on my wavelength,” she says.
About 3,500 to 5,000 films, both features and shorts, are submitted annually, and about 200 are accepted. They intially go through viewers who rank them from 1 to 5, then pass them on to Puig and three others on the programming team, who meet frequently over Zoom to deliberate.
“If it’s like a three and above, we will watch them. And then we program the fours and fives,” she explains. “”We watch a lot of films.”
One of the challenges of the job falls into the nice-problem-to-have category: competing with Sundance for premieres. So SBIFF loses some films each year to the Park City event.
Santa Barbara also has plenty of competition from festivals just below the level of Sundance’s acclaim and prestige. But that’s where its many advantages come into play.
“Santa Barbara is a beautiful place,” notes Puig, and its beauty contributes to its stellar guest lists: “We really believe in having the filmmakers attend. I feel like there’s no point of a film festival unless they attend, because otherwise you’re just be watching a movie.”
She adds: “So we really make sure that when they come, we really work hard on the Q&As, we involve them in panels, we make sure that they have a wonderful time when they’re here. We do our best to program as inclusive and diverse a slate as possible.”
And if you’re traveling from somewhere cold, as many people are in February, you can expect a pleasant respite. California is dealing with intense rains and flooding this week, but they are expected to end before the festival opens Wednesday.
What Types of Films Does the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Look For?
Is there a particular brand of film that does especially well in Santa Barbara? The short answer, of course, is good films. But there are also some other standout qualities.
“There’s some that we know will strike a chord and they tend to have to do with the ocean, ocean life, or watersports: surfing, swimming, you know. So we always have those. This year we have a movie called Point of Change that’s about surfing in Indonesia, and the surfing culture there that was brought by Americans, and it gets into colonialism. It’s a really interesting documentary.”
Another water-related film is director Nays Baghai’s stunning documentary Diving Into The Darkness, a profile of undersea cave diver Jill Heinerth that is shot largely in undersea caves that most people will never see outside of the film.
As the festival’s international reputation expands, so do its international offerings: This year’s opening night film is the Disney TV documentary Madu, which follows 12-year-old Anthony Madu from dancing barefoot on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria to attending one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world and dancing on London stages.
The closing night film is the U.S. premiere Heather Graham’s Chosen Family, about a yoga teacher searching for inner peace despite personal chaos. It stars Graham, Julia Stiles, Thomas Lennon and Michael Gross.
The event will also feature free screenings of Oscar contenders Maestro, Oppenheimer (featuring a Q&A with Murphy), Poor Things, Killers of the Flower Moon, American Symphony (featuring a Q&A with Jon Baptiste), The Holdovers, and American Fiction. All are part of the festival’s commitment to expanding understanding through film.
“I’m a believer that films can contribute to open minds, and bring greater perspective and compassion,” says Puig. “That line that Roger Ebert has about films being empathy machines — I think we really feel strongly about that. And so we program films that represen our mission to engage, enrich and insire people through film. That’s the beating heart of the festival.”