Santa Barbara film fest sees itself as Oscar harbinger

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Daniel Day-Lewis’ career was playing out before an audience of 2,000 at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre, but the two-time Oscar winner couldn’t bear to watch the 10-minute highlight reel that played before last weekend’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute.

“It was surreal,” Day-Lewis said later. “And absolutely not my usual kind of thing.” So while clips from “My Left Foot” and “Gangs of New York” and a dozen other movies screened, Day-Lewis hid backstage, at one point letting out a sound somewhere between a cry and a scream. Festival staff members gave him a concerned look. “It’s the music!” Day-Lewis said, suddenly smiling. “I love this music!”

Like many other movie industry events, Santa Barbara’s annual film festival has, over its 28-year-history, gradually shifted, aligning itself with the awards season that culminates with the Oscars. The festival website touts its “knack for predicting Academy Award winners,” and, indeed, the 11-day event has hosted tributes in recent years to such eventual Oscar victors as Sandra Bullock, Kathryn Bigelow, Christoph Waltz and, last year, Christopher Plummer and “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin.


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“Because there are hundreds of film festivals, you need a niche,” says Roger Durling, the festival’s executive director since 2004. “The Oscars are our window display. Hopefully, people will walk through the store and see there’s a lot more there.”

The festival, which winds down on Sunday, has an inventory that includes nearly 200 movies and an educational program that pairs student filmmakers with industry professionals. Attendance this year is on target to equal last year’s total of 70,000 with the festival’s screening passes, which have nothing to do with the celebrity events, selling out well in advance.

Weekend industry panels, featuring directors, writers and producers prominent in the Oscar conversation, also prove a popular draw and often produce banter and stories that veer from the standard talking points. (“Les Misérables” director Tom Hooper, when asked if he was nervous about his film’s commercial prospects in the wake of “Phantom of the Opera’s” failure, dryly replied, “I was until I saw it.”)

But it’s the tributes, lengthy career retrospectives held at the Mission Revival-style Arlington Theatre on State Street, that have become the festival’s signature, a chance for Oscar nominees to take a trip down memory lane and, if they’re so inclined, subtly tout their credentials to voters in attendance. (Some 100 academy members live in Santa Barbara, while countless others own secondary residences in the tony community.)

“Django Unchained” writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose film has two Oscar nominations — for best picture and original screenplay — was on tap Wednesday night. Supporting actress Oscar nominee Amy Adams (“The Master”) will be feted Thursday, with lead actress front-runner Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) taking center stage on Saturday. The festival’s opening weekend tributes went to “Argo” director and star Ben Affleck and Day-Lewis, who stars this awards season in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Both films have been at the forefront of this year’s best picture race, though, as Durling notes, invitations went out months before nominations were announced.


Day-Lewis’ evening ended up being a digressive trip through his filmography that, because of the actor’s frequent departures from the topic at hand, more or less stopped in 1993 with the biographical drama “In the Name of the Father.” Affleck, meanwhile, engaged in a freewheeling conversation with film critic Leonard Maltin, good-naturedly bantering that the clips reel could have “gone heavier on ‘Armageddon’ and lighter on ‘Pearl Harbor.’”

Immediately following his two-hour event, Affleck headed over to the nearby Arlington Tavern where he kept the conversation going, posed for pictures, expressed relief that Maltin ignored “Gigli” and, over a glass of whiskey, crunched the numbers on his movie’s best picture chances.

“Obviously, these tributes, coming between nominations and ballots going out, are well-timed,” says one awards consultant who has been to Santa Barbara several times and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the current Oscar campaign. “What’s really nice, though, is that the focus is on the work and the format lets people talk in depth to an audience that genuinely loves movies.”

Day-Lewis, afterward, said he could feel that appreciation — even when he was tucked away backstage.

“I felt very safe,” the press-shy actor said afterward, though he did frequently cover his eyes while on stage as the clips from his films played. “Perhaps I’ll be asked back,” he added with a sly smile, “though I don’t know how many more titles I’ll be adding in the future.”



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