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Last stop before Oscars: Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Come late January, drive up the Pacific Coast Highway about 90 miles north of Hollywood and there it is: the last stop on the awards season trail before the Oscars.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday night with the premiere of director Fisher Stevens’ deep-sea documentary “Mission Blue,” provides a showcase for nearly 200 movies (including 24 world premieres) and star-studded tributes expected to draw about 70,000 attendees over the festival’s 11-day run.

On Friday, “American Hustle” director David O. Russell is to receive the festival’s outstanding director award, his latest accolade after collecting a Golden Globe for best motion picture musical or comedy and receiving an Oscar nod for best director. On Saturday, Cate Blanchett, who is nominated for a lead actress Academy Award for her performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” is to be honored with an award for outstanding performer of the year.

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“Last year we had Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence; we consistently attract stars on that level,” said the festival’s executive director, Roger Durling. “It is convenient that we’re a festival that happens to take place after the Oscar nominations. But the track record we’ve built speaks for itself.”

On Feb. 6, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, the director and star of the mordant corruption comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street,” are scheduled to appear at the festival’s Arlington Theater venue to collect the Cinema Vanguard award.

Robert Redford, Bruce Dern, Oprah Winfrey, “Before Midnight” co-writers/stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (with director Richard Linklater) and Oscar nominees Jared Leto and June Squibb are also scheduled to be feted at festival events.

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The 29th installment of the festival will also feature an entertainment-industry-skewing series of panels, including “Directors on Directing,” “It Starts With a Script (Screenwriters Panel)” and one called “Creative Forces: Women in the Biz” on Saturday.

That seminar is scheduled to include several of 2013’s most celebrated producers: Dede Gardner (“World War Z”), Rachel Winter (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Emma Tillinger (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), Kristine Belson (“The Croods”) and Megan Ellison (“American Hustle,” “Her”).

Celebrities and movie premieres aside, Durling expressed particular pride about the festival's educational programs, including one called “Field Trip to the Movies” for which 5,000 students from low-income Central Coast public schools are bused into Santa Barbara to take part in a “master class” with acclaimed filmmakers. This year, co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee of the hit animated feature “Frozen” will lead educational seminars for third- to sixth-graders.

“It is the most rewarding thing we do,” Durling said. “For some of these kids, it’s the first time they get to see a movie on the big screen.”

For more information, check www.sbiff.org

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chris.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @__chrislee

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