San Diego Film Festival returns live with awards schedule ambitions

Venice. Telluride. Toronto. San Diego.

San Diego? Yes, planting this sequence of film festivals in the minds of the industry is the lofty goal of Tonya Mantooth, CEO and Creative Director of San Diego International Airport. Film festival. She wants to make the event a part of the mandatory awards calendar, capturing films, stars and — most importantly — voters as they head to the Oscars.

Now in its 21st year, the festival will take place October 19-23 at multiple venues in the coastal city, just a hop, hop, and hop south of LA — far closer to Hollywood than most other festivals in ‘fall.

“We’re working to make San Diego an awards stage,” Mantooth says. “We seek to schedule films that target Academy members because we have a huge community here…and many of the films we screen are up for awards.”

These include James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” starring Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, an endless opening night; and “Empire of Light” by Sam Mendes, with Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward and Colin Firth, which closes the festival.

In the meantime, festival-goers will screen, among others, Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” (pictured above), with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell; “She Said” by Maria Schrader, with Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan; and “The Inspection” by Elegance Bratton, with Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope.

It’s Mantooth’s 11th year leading a 21-year-old festival, and his strategy seems to be paying off. “Last year, our premieres garnered 28 Oscar nominations,” she says.

In addition to narrative features, SDIFF will screen documentaries, shorts, animations, docudramas and student projects – both in-competition and out-of-competition.

But aside from the screenings, the festival will launch a few key initiatives. One is focused on human trafficking and sex trafficking through a partnership with Authentic ID, an identity tracking and fraud protection company that targets traffickers, and All 4 Humanity, a nonprofit organization organization that works to educate industries on identifying trafficked persons. Sex trafficking survivor and expert on the subject, Dr. Brook Bello, will receive the SDIFF Humanitarian Award.

Additionally, the festival will launch the Women’s Film Series, the result of the festival’s recent integration with the San Diego Women’s Film Festival, produced by the Women’s Museum of California. The series consists of 10 films directed by women with the dual purpose of spotlighting female directors and amplifying voices on the issue of gender inequality in the industry.

Finally, the festival will highlight San Diego as a hub for the development of biotechnology and life sciences through a partnership with Curebound philanthropy, which funds cancer research, via a screening of the film “Medicine and Miracles and a panel exploring the subject.

All of this will take place amid a whirlwind of parties and in-person galas, including the traditional Night of the Stars Tribute, the everlasting focus on culinary cinema, and the awarding of the festival’s Spotlight Award to Colson Baker, aka Machine. Gun Kelly, whose “Good News” (aka “Taurus”) will screen in San Diego ahead of its fall release.

But while the festival has come back to life with new initiatives, live screenings and events, challenges remain. 2020 and 2021 have seen the festival diminished by the pandemic – a fate it has shared with all other film festivals. Mantooth hopes for an attendance of 15,000 to 20,000 in 2022, which is a little below the figure for 2019, but she remains optimistic: “We are rebuilding, with everyone. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s the inherent need to be with others, to be part of a community, and no community is more passionate than the film community.

Darcy J. Skinner