The Santa Clarita Valley has long been a prime filming location and is home to the Western Walk of Stars, the mansion of silent film legend William S. Hart, California Institute of the Arts, three movie theaters and even had a show about (fictionalized) life in our town. But in spite of all this “Hollywood North” as Santa Clarita is sometimes called, the area does not have its own film festival.
Enter Lisa deSouza.
“I literally sat on GoDaddy and I put in every version of the Santa Clarita International, Independent, you-name-it film festival I could find and bought the domain,” said deSouza, founder and executive director of the Santa Clarita International Film Festival (SCIFF). “I was sitting there with all these domains in my profile wondering what I’m going to do with them so I said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’”
An actor, writer and director, deSouza’s journey to creating a Santa Clarita-based film festival began as she was entering a short film she wrote and directed into to other festivals. As a resident of Santa Clarita, she thought it would be a good idea to enter the short into one of the city’s local festivals only to come to the shocking realization that there was none.
“We’re the third largest city in Los Angeles County and the 18th fastest growing city in the country, so now we’re on the map and not just ‘that city over there, people know about us now,” deSouza said. “In addition, the other missing piece of the puzzle was social media. Sure these platforms have negative aspects about them but when you look at all the positive things they can do, they connect people. All the submissions we have now are purely through social media. I posted to Facebook the other day and one of the responses was ‘It’s about time.’”
Arts and Events Manager for the city of Santa Clarita Phil Lantis said that the city has played host to other film festivals in the past, but none within the last eight years. Now in addition to the Newhallywood Silent Film Festival, which honors film history, Lantis said it’s exciting to complement that with a modern, competitive festival to celebrate emerging talent.
“There was a glut of film festivals in the world for a while, but it seems to have weeded out a little bit and they’re more regional, so it was hard to compete with that and say what was special about Santa Clarita’s film festival,” said Lantis, who is also one of SCIFF’s judges. “As some of those smaller festivals have fallen to the wayside and as Santa Clarita’s reputation as a filmmaking community has grown, I think that gives more cache to having a film festival here with our name. One of the recommendations in the 2016 Arts Master Plan is that there should be film festivals so it was great to hear [Lisa was] coming in and doing one.”
Planning for the Santa Clarita International Film Festival began in late 2019 into early 2020 only to be waylaid by another international phenomenon, the COVID-19 pandemic. Unperturbed by the slight setback, deSouza continued to work on her project from designing the website and logo to developing partnership. Now, with the SCIFF set to premiere on Dec. 9, deSouza has expanded her staff to 13 members and already has 150 film submissions from around the world.
“One of the aims of this festival is to spark the three C’s: connection, community and conversation,” deSouza said. “The way I see it it’s not even an event, it’s a movement and I truly believe if you build it well, people will come.”
Though SCIFF has not even begun and already, deSouza seems to have achieved the C of connection. Much of the development and planning of the festival has been done through networking and partnerships with businesses and members of the community like the Regal Edwards Valencia and Laemmle Newhall theaters, the city itself and CalArts. Lantis said that he is impressed by the speed and breadth that deSouza was able to form partnerships and sees that as indicative of the community’s hunger for an event like SCIFF.
“It’s not someone coming in and saying ‘I’m going to do this thing and be out of town,’” he said, “It’s not a travelling show, Lisa is a member of our community. This is the way to do it, let it grow and be embraced by the community so that it is something Santa Clarita can be proud of.”
Lantis believes that SCIFF can only positively impact the community. Not only does having a local festival grant Santa Clarita based artists a platform to showcase their work, but should SCIFF find success and growth, Santa Clarita could become a cultural destination for creators and consumers around the globe.
“It’s sort of a self-fulfilling cycle if you say we’re a place that values film and you have a festival that celebrates that creativity, then it becomes known for that and it becomes a destination for people on a regular basis, not just on festival weekend,” Lantis said. “Film is one of the greatest mediums to break down cultural barriers across time and place because you’re telling a story. ‘International’ is an absolutely intentional word. It’s really about creating a space where those perspectives can come together.”
Though deSouza has grand plans for the future of the festival and envisions it as a destination for international filmmakers, she is tempering her expectations for this year’s attendance.
Since it is SCIFF’s founding year, deSouza is focusing on building up the festival’s programming and reputation and anticipates attendance to be mostly limited to Santa Clarita locals and people living in Los Angeles county. Additionally, she does not believe the pandemic will have a significant effect on attendance.
“I dont think a lot of us thought we would still be dealing with this pandemic [almost] two years later and I think people need something like [SCIFF], we need a place where we can connect and converse,” deSouza said. “In a perfect world, it’ll be December when we’re having this so we’ll have stabilized a lot more than we have, but in the worst case scenario we mask up and follow the protocols of the theaters as mandated by the CDC.”
SCIFF will host a selection of feature-length and short animated and live-action films of all genres from drama and comedy to horror. Each category will have an awards competition with prizes and the festival will also host conversations with the filmmakers in attendance. As a bonus, accepted filmmakers will receive a 20% cut of the tickets sold using their unique code. In addition to the in-person screenings, there will be a separate, free to watch curated online showcase filmmaker interviews, however these films will not be eligible for a cut of ticket sales.
DeSouza believes that the current industry model of film distribution and exhibition is “broken,” so she envisioned SCIFF as a platform for independent filmmakers who sometimes struggle to be accepted in larger film festivals where well-performing films often gain distribution deals. On the other hand, smaller film festivals do exist, but these are often little more than “screening rooms.”
The vision for SCIFF is to be a happy medium between the two, a festival that commands the attention of powerful entertainment industry players that remains accessible to smaller filmmakers.
On Dec. 9, SCIFF will host its opening night at the Laemmle Newhall theater and will then move to the Regal Edwards Valencia theater for the remainder of its run. DeSouza was also able to partner with the Westfield Valencia Town Center who donated space and a stage for a soft launch of a music festival alongside the film festival.
Eric Kline, director and producer of the documentary short “Two Heads Are Better Than One: Making the Ben Ferencz Bust,” said that deSouza contacted him about featuring his short film on the festival’s opening night. Though Kline is being very selective about which festivals he submits to, he said he was excited to enter SCIFF and was honored by the offer.
“I’ve been in the entertainment business long enough to know Santa Clarita is not far from Hollywood and there is a lot of buzz being created in the area,” Kline said. “It’s important for communities to support homegrown film festivals because the notion of Hollywood today is different than it was when I started as a producer and director in 1991 and everything was Hollywood or New York. Now whether you’re on the coast or in the middle of the country, there are thousands of festivals globally and filmmakers can hopefully get their films out and resonate with the right people. Ultimately that’s what filmmakers want – for their films to be seen by an audience that will appreciate the messaging.”
Kline’s film follows sculptor Yaacov Heller as he creates a bust of Ben Ferencz, the last living chief prosecutor for the United States during the Nuremberg trials, which is permanently displayed at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. As the creator of a documentary short film, Kline said he believes that documentary submissions to film festivals are growing in popularity due to the ability to make them on tight budgets and because of the impact of the subject matter.
He also believes that as audiences’ attention spans shrink with the advent of micro-content platforms like TikTok, their appetite for short films increases.
“In a setting where people have the opportunity to watch something meaningful, [short film] gives people who want to speak truth to power and have an important message a way to grab people’s attention,” he said. “People love documentaries because [they’re] real. The need for it is great.”
As this is SCIFF’s first year, deSouza had not originally planned on pairing the film screenings with a music festival. After talking with different artists, though, she realized that musicians also face the same struggle for recognition as filmmakers.
“The industry model is changing and it’s not always so much about how talented you are but how many Instagram followers you have and that’s not art, and a lot of musicians feel that the hyper-produced stuff out there now is not representative of music,” deSouza said. “It expanded from the original idea into giving [musicians] a platform as well. From an artist perspective there was no reason they should be locked out [of SCIFF] just because you’re not a filmmaker, it makes no sense.”
Not content to stop there, deSouza said she wants to “be a little aggressive” and also try to set up an arts festival as well which will showcase paintings, sculptures and other visual art submissions, with artists potentially being able to sell their work directly to festival patrons.
With the expansion beyond film into a more encompassing arts festival, deSouza said she may eventually move to change the festival’s name, however she said one of the things holding her back is the branding perspective of the difficulty of finding an acronym as catchy as “SCIFF.”
“The goal for this festival is to make it the next SXSW here in Los Angeles [County],” de Souza said. “Santa Clarita is the only location in Los Angeles that could ever possibly do it. It has the space. In a perfect world, five years down the road I see a festival with film, music, technology with the entire landscape of Santa Clarita being involved.”
The Santa Clarita International Film Festival will run from Dec. 9-12. For more information or to submit to the festival, visit https://www.sciff.org/.
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