SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The heart and soul of any film festival lie not just with its volunteer force but also the films that comprise the screenings the public will attend.
With 47 world premieres and 71 U.S. premieres this year, on top of so many other films, Q&As, and panels featured at the event, and with so much at stake, a small team of individuals with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is tasked with selecting the films that could make or break the festivalgoer experience.
Michael Albright of Los Angeles is the festival's programming director and heads a team of about four other people called programmers whose arduous labor begins in the summertime.
"It's a ton of work. We had 4,000 submissions...it's a good problem to have in some ways because obviously you have a lot of great films to chose from."
The Programming Director works with the other programmers to choose all of the movies screening at the festival, schedule Q&As with the filmmakers, and get a lot of the films from distributors as well as all of the submissions that come through. It's a 6-month commitment just to prepare for the festival's kickoff date.
"We're also very centered on trying to have a lot of world premieres and U.S. premieres here, so we're looking for new stuff, and a lot of different diversity in terms of our sidebars and our sections that we feature that kind of reflect the personality of Santa Barbara and also showcase different regions of the world," said Albright.
The team uses what Albright calls thematic sidebars like having a cuisine section for featuring food movies, or a real nature section for environmental films, or a section devoted to Nordic, Spain and Latin America cinema to help dwindle down submissions and stay focused on issues that are important to highlight at the festival.
A lot of the fall film festivals like Toronto and Venice are also very important to the team because they attend these festivals to flag down potential films to feature at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The team tries to focus their energy on selecting unique films that can make their world or U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara film festival.
"It's a personal relationship that a programmer has with a filmmaker generally. And we often have longstanding relationships with people that have shown their work here before and in years past, and then they come back with their new project, and so there's some continuity just in that respect of kind of building a community of filmmakers in Santa Barbara that come here with their movies and showcasing to the audience," said Albright. "And it's fun too for an audience member who met them three years ago and they come back and they know each other. So there's a real sense of community that we try to build."
Albright says the team has 20-30 spreadsheets that contain information, dates, sections and sidebars, and more that help them ensure they're not missing anything critical for the festival.
"When it goes well there's nothing better. When you come to a venue and you don't know if anyone is going to turn up and then you see a line around the block and filmmakers are there and it's a full house, and it goes off and everyone likes the movie and there's a good Q&A, that's what we worked towards for every single film," Albright said.
"Oftentimes at the festival, we don't know what's going to be popular before it starts so we're always surprised sometimes at some of the films we may have started at a small venue, and then it sort of travels word of mouth, and then we start announcing more screenings. So you never know what's going to actually work and what's not going to work, and that's what makes it fun and an organic process," said Albright.
For more information on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, visit sbiff.org.