Monday, October 29, 2007

How Does Roger Do It?

What the New Hampshire primary is to the Presidential race, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is to the Oscar race.

At least that’s the argument that I would make. Consider the evidence; Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, heck, even Al Gore, (although he technically didn't win the Academy Award for "An Inconvenient Truth" the award went to the producers of the movie, not the star, but you get the idea) all won Oscars last year, and each of those winners made a personal appearance in order to be honored at last year's Santa Barbara Film Fest.

This year's film fest looks just as promising in terms of its Oscar winner potential. So far, Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie have been announced as attendees who will be honored at the upcoming festival, which will be held from January 24 to February 3 of next year.

So how do the organizers of the festival do it? Last week over lunch at Louie’s at the Upham Hotel I asked that question of film fest executive director Roger Durling.

The man who typically dresses in all black cites hard work, good fortune and the growing reputation of the Film Fest. Also a factor is the festival’s strategic place on the calendar. It’s the only film festival that takes place between January, when the Academy Award nominations are announced, and late February, when the Oscars are handed out.

The road to the Academy Awards now goes through Santa Barbara. Ten years ago if you had told people that our local film fest would become a mandatory stop on the way to pick up one’s Oscar they would have put you on the first bus to Camarillo. As in, Camarillo State Hospital.

Roger, who had attended many film festivals, but never worked at one, became the head Fred of our own about five years ago. He inherited an operation that was one hundred thousand dollars in the red.

Today the film fest has budget of nearly $2 million and a full-time staff of seven that grows to a seasonal high of 25 from September through the first week of February when the fest completes its annual 10-day run.

The upcoming fest will be Roger's fifth as director. Recently it was listed as one of the world’s "50 unmissable film fests" by Variety, the top film industry trade journal, one of only 12 U.S. film fests to make the list.

Early in his tenure as director he was able to persuade the likes of Charlize Theron, Peter Jackson and George Clooney to come to Santa Barbara for the fest. Once those names had shown up, Roger found it easier to get people from the studios to start taking his phone calls.

He credits Carol Marshall, who has been the long-time publicist for the fest, as being one of the unsung heroes in terms of the festival’s success and his ability to attract big-name stars.

A self-described "film geek" Durling typically sees six or seven films a week, and that's six or seven films in a theater, not at home in front of the TV screen watching DVD's from Video Shmideo.

Each year, of the 250 films that are typically screened at the festival, Roger actually sees 160 or so of them.

Of course he has help in selecting the films that will be shown at the festival each year.

Throughout the year Roger will usually attend four other film festivals. Of all of them, Telluride is his favorite year in and year out.

Earlier this year he attended the granddaddy of 'em all, the Cannes film fest, for the first time, where he served as the director of the American Pavilion. It was at Cannes that the process of luring Jolie as one of the honorees began.

And Roger’s not done yet. Three more names of stars to be honored will be announced over the next few weeks.

* * *

Some of you might remember Jerry Cornfield, who used to write for the Independent. He has since moved to Washington state where he writes for, an on-line news source in Everett, Washington.

Yesterday, he somehow managed to work News-Press owner Wendy McCaw's name into a column about the Washington governor's race.

Wendy's controversial running of the Santa Barbara News-Press, the city's oldest daily -- the details of which are novel-worthy -- has made her desired by few and disdained by many. Any utterance of "McCaw" is generally accompanied by a very inglorious adjective or two.

That's got to hurt Craig McCaw, who's worked hard to bring honor and value to the family name.

Here in Washington, McCaw is a community gold-standard. Having Craig or his brother Bruce or their wives, Susan and Jolene, respectively, on your side is a positive force in social, business and political causes.

In Santa Barbara, the moniker is muddied and devalued.

So even our neighbors in the Pacific Northwest have an opinion on this.

Is Wendy's name that bad or is the Washington gubernatorial race that dull?

* * *

If all goes as planned I'll be blogging later today from L.A. with a report on this morning's federal court hearing in the News-Press v. Independent lawsuit. Stay tuned.

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