SANTA BARBARA — Hollywood's unique awards calculus wouldn't seem to take a film festival at this posh coastal enclave into account.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival, after all, is not a prestige movie launching pad such as the Toronto International Film Festival or an indie acquisitions bazaar like Utah's Sundance. But over the last decade, the Central Coast festival has carved an important niche in the movie ecosystem.
Arriving exactly two weeks after Academy Awards nominations were announced, the Santa Barbara festival is distinguished as a tactical pit stop on the way to the Oscars. The event functions as a de facto coda to the Golden Globes and awards from screen actors, directors, producers and writers guilds — the final word in cinematic valediction before the Academy Awards.
Consider that this year's festival, which runs through Sunday, is attracting Oscar nominees Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Dern, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Jared Leto and June Squibb to this scenic beach town 90 miles north of L.A.
One reason: More than 160 motion picture academy members are registered for the festival, and many others keep secondary residences here.
The SBIFF, which kicked off Thursday, touts itself as "a must-stop for front-runners on the awards season fast track." As such, the fest has staked its reputation hosting tributes in recent years for a substantial number of eventual Oscar victors including Sandra Bullock, director Kathryn Bigelow, Christoph Waltz, Christopher Plummer and last year's lead actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence.
This year, in addition to several Oscar nominees, Robert Redford and Oprah Winfrey are among the A-listers receiving honors at the festival.
On Saturday night, Blanchett traveled up the coast to receive the festival's outstanding performance of the year award for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a booze- and pill-addled Manhattan socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
After cringing her way through a video montage from her two-decade film career — "Awful," she said, watching herself from the stage of Santa Barbara's venerable Arlington Theatre — she reminisced about the time "a tarantula crawled on Ron Howard's crotch" and then she retired to a small after-party where she was toasted with 200-year old Hennessy Cognac.
The 2005 Oscar winner, who recently landed a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award and is considered the favorite for the Academy Award come March, recalled being pregnant the last time she was honored in Santa Barbara with the festival's Modern Master award in 2008.
"It's a prestigious festival!" Australia's Blanchett said. "It's a small community that really loves film and it's really coming into its own. To be singled out this way by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is absolutely thrilling. They've clearly made a mistake, but too late now."
A decade ago, the festival was a more parochial concern. Attracting no shortage of independent movie stalwarts and admirable films, its glam quotient and wow factor were comparatively dim. More of a getaway diversion, the festival was off the radar for top-tier talent.
That started to change in 2004 when Roger Durling was installed as executive director. At the time, the festival took place closer to springtime — after the Oscars — and had yet to adopt its star-studded celebrity tributes.
"It is convenient that we're a festival that happens to take place after the Oscar nominations," Durling said. "Every town in the U.S. seems to have an international film festival. This helps define us. It gives a clear indication as to what this festival is all about."
To be sure, the Santa Barbara fest provides a showcase for nearly 200 movies, including 35 American premieres and 24 world premieres, and is expected to draw around 70,000 attendees over its 11-day run. The 29th installment of the festival will also feature a series of panels on directing, screenwriting and other entertainment-industry-skewing topics.
But tributes — reverential career retrospectives that Durling likens in format to Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio" — remain the fest's signature programming.
In addition to Blanchett's tribute and one last week for filmmaker Russell — who is in the Oscar hunt for his corruption caper "American Hustle" and was awarded outstanding director by the festival — fellow Academy Award nominees Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club") and Squibb ("Nebraska") are set to receive festival honors.
On Thursday, DiCaprio and Scorsese, the Oscar-nominated star and director, respectively, of the controversial biopic "The Wolf of Wall Street," are scheduled to appear at the Arlington Theatre and receive the Cinema Vanguard award. And on Saturday, "Nebraska" star Bruce Dern, another lead actor nominee for his performance as a cantankerous retiree, will arrive in Santa Barbara to be feted with the fest's Modern Master award.
According to Lea Yardum, a longtime Paramount Pictures awards strategist who helped organize the appearances by DiCaprio, Scorsese and Dern, Santa Barbara provides several "for your consideration" upsides, including the chance to bring Oscar contenders to academy voters off the Hollywood grid.
"The entertainment community goes to a lot of huge festivals and each has its individual charms," Yardum said. "But Santa Barbara is smaller; it's gorgeous. From an awards perspective, there's a good amount of members there. And you know you're going to celebrate talented people's accomplishments in a really intimate way."
She added: "When you get outside the primary cities where Oscar voters live, you are only helping your cause."
Santa Barbara local Michelle Bruner has been coming to the festival since the early '00s and remembered one under-attended tribute for "Dreamgirls" director Bill Condon, who received the festival's Montecito award in 2007.
"The theater was half full and they were giving out free tickets," Bruner said. "They had to have volunteers go and pick people off the streets."
This year, nearly all of the panels sold out before the festival's start date.
On Saturday, a panel called "Creative Forces: Women in the Biz" showcased the working methodology of several of the year's most celebrated female producers: Dede Gardner ("12 Years a Slave"), Rachel Winter ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Gaby Tana ("Philomena") and Sara Woodhatch ("Before Midnight").
Gardner remarked on the hothouse festival environment and its importance in promoting prestige films.
"It's not often you're in a small town filled with people who love movies," said the producer, president of Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment.
Blanchett, after being handed the outstanding performer of the year award by an uncharacteristically effusive Rooney Mara (her costar in the upcoming psychological drama "Carol"), included a moment of appreciation for the SBIFF.
"I will come back again if you can invent another award for me," Blanchett said with a laugh.