film festival tourism

Santa Barbara

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Why Go: to experience one of California’s most beautiful cities and catch a few films and celebrity love-ins in the process.

Festival Website:

Timing: Ten Days at the end of January-beginning of February


Launched in 1986, the Santa Barbara Festival competes with nearby Palm Springs for Oscar-related events, but under Roger Durling, who came on board to head up the event in 2002, the Santa Barbara  event has ceded any claim to be a showcase for the best new cutting-edge foreign films to its rival. Instead, it has settled on a program heavy on glitzy star tributes, filling in the gaps with  a smattering of international cinema, generally of lackluster quality. National Geographic-style documentaries;and sport-themed movies designed to appeal to the college crowd from the local State University campus fill out the schedule. The festival’s location not far from Los Angeles is both a blessing and a curse: it’s easy to attract A-list Hollywood talent, but celebrities who live in the neighborhood are capable of pressuring the festival to screen their unreleasable vanity projects.

Special Guests

Many Hollywood types are featured, and  international  filmmakers whose movies are being screened attend. The festival runs a full complement of on-stage interviews and panels

Audience: Mostly locals, who turn out in force.

Screening Venues:

Several theaters are used; some converted auditoriums. All are comfortable, but none is new.

The Metro 4 Multiplex

The Lobero, one of the Festival theaters

The Lobero Theeater

The Arlington Theater

Screening Schedule

Movies begin at eight o’clock in the morning and continue until late in the evening. Last screenings start at 10pm. As many as five films may be screened concurrently, so there’s considerable choice.


The festival mini-packs, which offer 4 tickets for $60 or 10 for $140 are a bit of a gamble; they don’t guarantee admission, and many films sell out. If you purchase these mini-packs, be prepared to arrive very early to popular screenings to get a decent seat. For $375 you can get a pass that will assure you a good seat to any film if you arrive at least 20 minutes ahead.


Santa Barbara has been called the most beautiful town on the California coast, and it lives up to its reputation. Spanish colonial architecture creates a distinctively warm and intimate character in the downtown area. Expect prices to be high here, and be forewarned that January and February can be cool and rainy.

A shopping arcade near the main festival multiplex.

A shopping arcade near the main festival multiplex.


The Hotel Santa Barbara, which serves as the festival’s hub, is convenient but can be noisy and hectic. Better choices would be the Holiday Inn Express, a moderately priced 3-star property in a restored historic building a block or so off the main street. A higher end choice, also convenient, is the four-star Inn of the Spanish Garden. If you don’t mind walking, there are a number of inexpensive hostelries along the water, including the Mason Beach Inn, where I stayed in 2007.

Holiday Inn Express

Spanish Garden Inn

  • Mason Beach Inn. 324 West Mason Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.  (805) 962-3203

Mason Beach Inn

Getting Around

If you stay nearby in town, you’ll have no trouble walking between the various theaters. The city operates inexpensive shuttle buses that go up and down the main street and along the waterfront, but these don’t run in the evening.


Mostly Italian and mostly expensive. These are a few I’ve enjoyed.

  • Olio e Limone. Small and family-owned. Expect to pay high prices for the excellent food. Near the Arlington Theater. 11 W. Victoria St., Ste. 17 (bet. Chapala & State Sts.) Santa Barbara, CA 93101. (805) 899-2699.

Olio y Limon

  • The Wine Cask. A superb choice if you can stand the steep tariff. As the name suggests, wine is a particular strength and not so pricy by the glass. (They would like to lure you into buying a bottle from the adjacent shop.) Housed in an old monastery, the dining room exudes colonial charm. Near all the theaters. 813 Anacapa St. Santa Barbara, CA 93101. (805) 966-9463.

The Wine Cask

  • Cadiz. Chic, affordable and convenient to the Metro 4 multiplex. 509 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
    (805) 770-2760.



  • The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. A cool, serene place to walk. It’s up in the hills, so you’ll need a car.

Botanic Gardens


  • The Old Santa Barbara Mission. An ancient structure from the days of Spanish domination of the region, it offers a glimpse into California as it once was. 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara, CA 93105 (805) 682-4713.

Santa Barbara Mission



The 2005 Festival Program Book

The 2005 Festival Program Book

Best Film I Saw

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction. With twenty minutes added to its original length, Samuel Fuller’s 1980 classic war picture further enhanced its high reputation.

The big Red One


The 2007 Festival Program Book

The 2007 Festival Program Book

Best Film I Saw

Red Road. Andrea Arnold’s gripping thriller takes a raw look at a woman’s vengeful quest.

Red Road

Most Unfairly Maligned Film: Hounddog. Deborah Kampmeier’s portrait of a poor Southern girl was a sensitive look at child abuse, not an exploitation of its star Dakota Fanning.


2015 Festival Poster

Best Films I Saw:

  • Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem. A bitter screed against Israel’s patriarchal divorce laws enlivened by intense, subtle performances and moments of sharp humor.  Written and directed by the brother-and-sister team of Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz with Ronit starring as the beleaguered Viviane.


  • Haemoo. Adapted from a play based on a true story about a Korean fishing vessel which capsized with a full load of Korean illegal immigrants coming from China aboard, this relentless tale of the crew’s inexorable descent into hell is presented with chilling, matter-of-fact logic. Stylishly helmed by Sung-bo Shim, who co-wrote the script with famed Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho.


  • Cart (Ka-teu). Another standout Korean tale based on true event, this one  about a strike mounted by the female employees of a big-ox discount store in Seoul.  The working class feminist politics at play in Kim Kyong-Chan’s script are brought to life by Boo Ji-Young, who guides the superb cast with sensitivity and grit.


Unexpected Pleasures:

  • The smart fest promo reel, which plays on the events strengths by featuring interview clips with some of the luminaries who have visited over the years.


Best Film I Saw: Lazar. This gripping, assured thriller from Macedonian filmmaker Svetozar Ristovski chronicles the moral awakening of a young man engaged in smuggling African immigrants into the European Union.


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