Over the past two decades, the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival has seen a lot of changes.
“The part that’s (been) consistent is making it the best possible experience for people that attend … reminding folks of the tremendous social and personal enjoyment factor of seeing a film with an audience,” said the festival’s founder, San Luis Obispo attorney Mary Harris.
The nonprofit festival, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, starts Wednesday with a screening of the documentary “Starring Adam West.” Following the film, actor Adam West, best known for “Batman” and “Family Guy,” will participate in a question-and-answer session and receive the festival’s Spotlight Award honoring entertainment industry insiders.
On Saturday, Oscar winner Jeff Bridges will receive the festival’s King Vidor Career Achievement Award, which recognizes excellence in filmmaking, following the George Sidney Independent Film Awards.
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Also in store for audiences are film screenings, soirees, panel discussions, workshops and red-carpet events such as Friday’s Surf Nite in SLO.
Among the movies receiving sneak previews are the romantic drama “The Face of Love” and the documentary “Anita” about attorney Anita Hill, who famously accused U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Both screen Sunday.
“We’re really excited about this lineup,” said Wendy Eidson, the festival’s artistic and marketing director. “It seems like the festival’s bigger and better each year.”
Festival created with community support
The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival premiered in October 1993.
Although talk of a local film festival had been circulating for several years, it took a $15,000 grant from the city of San Luis Obispo’s Promotional Coordinating Committee to jumpstart the event, Harris said.
The festival also received “huge support from the community,” she added, citing Jim Dee, owner of the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo, as one early booster.
“That’s a vote of confidence from your home town that they want the event to succeed.”
The festival originally focused on classics such as “Marty,” “My Fair Lady” and “It Happened One Night,” paired with behind-the-scenes discussions about moviemaking, and eventually expanded to include new films by independent filmmakers.
Another key aspect was the creation of an award named after “War and Peace” director King Vidor, who died in Paso Robles. Harris said the festival sought to honor “outstanding, respected individuals who had a tremendous body of work and were delightful to be around.”
“Showboat” director George Sidney was the King Vidor award’s first recipient. Other past honorees include James Cromwell, Morgan Freeman and Malcolm McDowell; “Winter’s Bone” actor John Hawkes received the award last year.
From the start, Harris said festival attendees appreciated the warm reception they received from local audiences.
“Everybody that they would come in contact with would be so welcoming and friendly that they just had a fantastic experience,” she recalled. “What we might have lacked in a big budget, we made up for in TLC (tender loving care).”
Changes and steady growth
Harris stepped down as director in 2003, prompting a flurry of changes for the festival.
The date was moved from October to March in order to be closer to the Academy Awards and avoid scheduling conflicts with fall events. (As a result, there was no festival in 2005.)
The festival’s leadership shifted as well. Eidson joined the festival as artistic director in 2005, taking over as executive director in April 2006. She’s served in her current position since April 2013; Charlotte Alexander oversees administrative and fundraising duties as festival director.
Although the festival, which at one time ran for 10 days, now lasts only five, Eidson said it attracts more film buffs than ever before. At the start of her tenure, she said, the festival drew about 5,000 people. Attendees numbered about 8,500 last year, and organizers hope to attract close to 10,000 this year.
According to Eidson, the festival will screen 62 films as part of its regular competition. Sunday’s Central Coast Filmmakers Showcase will feature 15 movies, and 20 will be shown Sunday as part of the Filmmakers of Tomorrow Showcase.
Eidson said reaching two decades is a “wonderful feat” for the festival.
“It’s so difficult to keep going as a nonprofit, (given) not just the financial side but the energy it takes to maintain and grow,” she said. As the festival continues to evolve, Eidson hopes it will preserve its personable, small-town vibe.
“What makes our festival really unique and special is that we keep it laidback and mellow,” she said, while placing an emphasis on affordability. “We have really strived to keep that feeling.”
WEDNESDAY AT THE FILM FESTIVAL
“Starring Adam West”
What: Filmmaker James Tooley’s documentary charts the life and career of “Batman” star Adam West. This screening is paired with a question-and-answer session and award ceremony.
When: 7 p.m. Where: Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
How much: $10 to $15. Passes to all festival events can be purchased as festival headquarters, 1007 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.
Information: 546-3456 or www.slofilmfest.org