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Focus on Santa Barbara

The city's annual film festival is using Oscar season to lure Hollywood's top talent.


A funny thing happened in Santa Barbara a year ago, amid the gush of films in theprogram of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. An overflow audience packed the Riviera Theater, drawn by a star-studded panel of screenwriters, including the much-buzzed-about and/or Oscar-nominated Alan Ball ("American Beauty"), Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), Eric Roth ("The Insider") and Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich").

With all the other celluloid temptations of the 2000 festival, that gathering was one of its hottest tickets. And the trend ratchets up this year, with panel discussions of screenwriters, directors and producers who are among the current talks of the town. More to the point, Oscar nominees abound.

In many ways, it's life as usual for the 16th annual, 11-day festival, which kicks off tonight at the Arlington Theater with a screening of "About Adam," a new movie from Irish writer-director Gerard Stembridge, which co-stars Oscar nominee (for "Almost Famous") Kate Hudson. The festival boasts the usual diversity of screenings, from new American films to healthy representation from world cinema, documentaries, shorts and a digital film sidebar.

Celebrity tributes include toasts to Diane Keaton, Rob Reiner, Ben Kingsley, producer Doug Wick ("Gladiator"), digital filmmaker Rob Nilsson and French writer-director Francis Veber, whose "Dinner Game" was a highlight of last year's fest. There will also be daily, sequential screenings of Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part "Decalogue," the last West Coast screening before rights revert to Polish television. The festival closes March 11, with an awards ceremony and a screening of Ken Loach's latest film, "Bread and Roses."

But when all is said and done, it may be the panel discussions with industry folk that have developed into the most notable subplot of the Sana Barbara festival. Bolstering the panel talent, and increasing industry interest (and thus the festival's profile), was high on the agenda when producer Renee Missel took over as artistic director of the festival four years ago.

From the get-go in the late '80s, festival organizers recognized a built-in virtue of the event was location, in a popular getaway town within driving distance of Los Angeles, and a gilded hometown to a growing number of film people. Missel came to another realization, that location plus timing were virtues. Landing handily between the announcement of Oscar nominees and the Academy Awards, the festival provides a symbiotic opportunity for panelists seeking publicity in the interim.

Word of the festival's symposiums has gradually spread through Hollywood. "Within the studio system," Missel says, "they've caught on to what possibilities it brings them--more publicity, Academy members noticing, perhaps helping the vote."

Before Missel took over as artistic director, she assembled another stellar screenwriting panel, which included Anthony Minghella and Billy Bob Thornton, coming off "The English Patient" and "Slingblade," respectively. From the beginning of her term, Missel says, "I was using the Oscars as a tool to leverage, knowing that I had something to offer these writers." Film journalist Anne Thompson was enlisted to recruit the directing panel.

Evidence that the Santa Barbara festival panels have become a coveted forum for Hollywood came this year in the form of an 11th-hour phone call from Miramax, wanting to bolster the presence of the multiple-Oscar-nominated film "Chocolat," which arranged to have its filmmakers in Santa Barbara. Missel says, "They were begging us to put on some people from 'Chocolat.' " Now, director Lasse Hallstrom, screenwriter Robert Newton Jacobs and producer David Brown will speak on panels, further raising the film's profile.

Other panel participants include, on Sunday morning's "It Starts With the Script" symposium, Steve Gaghan ("Traffic"), Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"), and Doug Wright, ("Quills"). The following Saturday's "Directors on Directing" panel includes Philip Kaufman ("Quills"), Nancy Myers ("What Women Want"), Jay Roach ("Meet the Parents"), Ed Harris ("Pollock") and Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me").

Missel, eager to include fellow producers in the mix, continues the practice of involving a producers panel, "Movers and Shakers," on March 10. Missel, whose resume includes the film "Nell," said, "So many people ask me, 'What does a producer do?' They don't understand. They always have great stories and they're very gregarious. So I thought, why not? Producing, directing, writing, the three go together."

There are also panels of film composers, cinematographers, one on industry advice and another on gender equations in Hollywood, "The Power of the X Chromosome."

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