Raising the Bar for the Love of Film
POPCORN BOX IN HAND, Santa Barbara International Film Festival Executive Director Roger Durling greets me after the reopening of Riviera Theatre and invites me to have a seat with him in one of the spacious red seats to learn more about the $2.5-million project that is the new home of SBIFF.
The tie that binds the recent opening of Riviera Theatre with Durling’s film obsession is the fragile and painful thread of a young boy struggling to find his right of passage and recovery following years of sexual abuse by a priest in his school in Panama. His escape into the world of film, along with his career journey into writing, screenwriting and finally the development of his current position as director of one of the top film festivals in the country, is one he has described as finally giving him purpose and new life.
“Many locals know I opened the French Bulldog coffee house in Summerland in 2001 and that I compulsively attended film festivals. It was at the French Bulldog that Michael Keaton, Tim Matheson, Rob Lowe and others would hear me saying, ‘Santa Barbara deserves a great film festival like Sundance or Toronto,’ but we had not yet maximized our potential in Santa Barbara,” says Durling.
“I finally met the SBIFF board and convinced them I could turn the festival around,” he continues. “I told them I would do it for free until we turned it around.…I always knew the potential we had due to our proximity to Hollywood, the downtown corridor, our infrastructure of theaters and a destination that people wanted to come to. I honed the festival identity 15 years ago with a goal of creating a venue like the Riviera, with programming throughout the year that would run like an art house.”
The late Michael Towbes, who owned the Riviera, shared the festival’s vision to create a cultural hub focused on film.
“When we told him about the educational programs and what we could do with it, he was intrigued and gave us a 30-year lease, providing we took it to a state-of-the art condition, which is what we have done. It is bittersweet to know he is not here to see this,” says Durling.
He continues, “Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin of Lynda.com have always been huge supporters. Originally, our vision for the Riviera was what you see now, but we knew it could not be done without fundraising. A year ago, we approached Lynda to be SBIFF board president and when she agreed, she asked, ‘What if we had one chance to do this right and money was not an issue?’ Lynda donated $2.5 million to the project. She has been our guardian angel.”
“It is a beautiful building and we are very proud of it!” says Durling. Eight speakers became 50 Dolby Atmos speakers with a Dolby Vision laser projection system. “Only 26 theatres in the country have these, and we are the only nonprofit with them. The 400 seats became 300 spacious seats, with 10 new seats for handicapped patrons. We tried to retain the detail of the Riviera ceiling and the red color scheme that is so important in theater, and we have kept the ‘R’s on the signature light fixtures that line the walls.”
Durling feels SBIFF has raised the bar quite a bit—people have high expectations, but once again his staff has succeeded in meeting them.
AT PRESS TIME, the Riviera campaign has $355,000 left to fundraise. For more information or to donate, visit sbiff.org/Riviera. Santa Barbara International Film Festival takes place Jan. 31-Feb. 10. For more information, visit sbiff.org.
This story was originally published in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.