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Festival Reimagined as Drive-In Experience

In response to COVID-19, the 2001-founded San Diego Film Foundation has reimagined its annual San Diego International Film Festival event this year.

The affair, which normally showcases 120 feature films, documentaries and short films via two festival villages – one downtown and one in La Jolla’s Westfield UTC mall – will be morphed into an open-air, drive-in experience, taking place from Oct. 15 through Oct. 18 at the latter location. Already, more than 3,000 submissions have been entered, mostly independent films, from a total of 68 countries, according to the organization, which is currently working through a final film selection.

A “Virtual Village,” an online platform with a 3D illustration on which users can live stream and watch on-demand films, among other functions, will also be introduced and offered this year. The foundation teamed up with Los Angeles-based Filmocracy, a streaming and interactive platform, in order to create the digital experience.

Annual attendance at the San Diego Film Festival is over 20,000, said Tonya Mantooth, CEO and artistic director at the San Diego Film Foundation. This year, because of the virtual component, she believes the event can reach possibly the same amount of people.

Sense of Community

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“It would have been a lot easier to go virtual, but, as a team, we felt like people wanted to be able to come out and feel a sense of community,” said Mantooth, who took over the organization in 2012 with three partners when the founders announced their plans to end the initiative. “We already have a really strong interest from outside of Southern California to participate in the Virtual Village, so we are hoping our attendance is in or around where we were last year.”

Leading up to the main event, the Film Foundation is hosting a fundraiser drive-in compilation in partnership with The September Drive-In Series, said Mantooth. On Friday and Saturday, Sept. 18-19 and Sept. 25-26, for $30/vehicle at the parking lot along Genesee Avenue, it will screen classic films like “Ferris Buller’s Day Off”, “Knives Out”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Yesterday”.

For $50/vehicle, patrons will get VIP “seating” as well as a Westfield UTC gift card to use at any of its shops or restaurants. Restaurant partners include Parana Empanadas, Shake Shack and True Food Kitchen.

“With the September Series, it is about really reaching out and galvanizing all to come together in a time when we are a bit divided,” said Mantooth. “Everyone feels a little isolated. For us, it was important to bring that to the community.”

Community Programs

As part of the #WestfieldCares initiative, all proceeds raised from the two weekend-long, drive-in shows will go toward the San Diego International Film Festival’s community programs, the “Focus on Impact Film Tour.” This includes its partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego Unified School District.

Through the initiative, the Film Foundation takes independent films from around the world that address important global topics, like homelessness, environmental issues and refugees, and live streams them out to every high school classroom in the SDUSD district via its studio. The district provides full curriculum for teachers to use along with the program, dubbed “Film, Curriculum & Conversation”.

“This program is preparing future leaders with global perspectives,” said Mantooth. “Students have the opportunity to grapple with the most pressing issues of our day and interact with the filmmakers who are exploring these important topics.”

Normally, the San Diego Film Foundation raises money for the Film Festival by hosting opening night at Balboa Theatre, said Mantooth, which sees upward of 1,000 guests each year. That wasn’t possible this year due to the pandemic.

Economic Driver

Mantooth said festival tourism is one of the fastest growing travel sectors. The Tribeca Film Festival in New York, for example, was started in 2001 specifically to rebuild the economy of lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she said. Today, the event generates between $120 million and $140 million in revenue, she added.

We want to be that type of economic driver for the city of San Diego, said Mantooth. 

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