The Seattle International Film Festival, which kicked off last night, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — and if you really want some perspective, you should ask my friend and colleague John Hartl, who’s attended and covered the festival for the Times every one of those years. (He and I are covering it side-by-side this year, for the 13th time — thanks, John! Maybe I can talk him into writing some SIFF reminiscences for us, before the fest is over.) I’ve been attending since the late ’90s, and what’s striking for me is that it hasn’t changed all that much in that time. SIFF’s expanded to a few theaters outside Seattle, added technological improvements (such as being able to print out your own tickets at home), and gradually switched, as all film festivals have, to primarily showing movies in digital formats. But I’m still seeing a lot of familiar faces in the passholder line; enjoying screenings in which filmmaker guests tell us stories about what we’ve just seen; and marvelling at how this enormous machine comes together for three and a half weeks — never quite glitch-free, but pretty close.
A reader asked me yesterday how SIFF compares to other North American festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, and the New York Film Festival — she wondered if SIFF’s vast size (276 feature films this year) corresponds to its clout. The short answer, I’d say, is no: SIFF is certainly the biggest film festival in North America (for example: by comparison, the Toronto International Film Festival is only ten days long), but it’s more a people’s festival than a prestige fest. You won’t see very many big-name actors and filmmakers here (though a few will drop by); nor will you see many, if any, of the films that will be competing for year-end awards. Part of that has to do with the calendar: Prestige movies tend to be released in the fall; the very few that buck the trend generally show up at Cannes — which overlaps with SIFF and has a more storied reputation. SIFF is also not a marketplace; you won’t hear about late-night distributor bidding wars here, as you do in Sundance and Toronto. Rather, SIFF is known as a friendly, inclusive festival where the locals have no problem getting tickets to whatever they want to see. I’ve long felt that SIFF is perhaps a bit too big for its own good — not every film you’ll see here is a masterpiece, and every year I think about how shaving a week off the festival might make for a more selective lineup and a less exhausting experience — but hey, SIFF is what it is. You’ll have some wonderful experiences sitting in the dark; every year, I definitely do.
A roundup of SIFF links, for the weekend:
— Big news (though long-rumored) announced last night: SIFF has taken over operations at the Egyptian, which will now be known as SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and has purchased the Uptown to establish a permanent home there.
— John and I, with a guest appearance by music writer Jeff Albertson, review a few of the first week’s highlights here.
— SIFF’s venue information, with buslines and parking tips.
— The full schedule.
See you at the fest, or right back here for Mad Men Monday . . .