San Luis Obispo International Festival is one of the unique film events in this beautiful northern Californian city. To learn more about the festival, we interviewed Wendy Eidson director of Festival.
Wendy Eidson was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Wendy got her first job at 14 as a production assistant on a television series, and that was it . . . she was hooked. After graduation from college and a short stint at art school, she began working full-time as an assistant director, working on many film and TV productions, including A CHRISTMAS STORY, SUSPECT, A NEW LIFE, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and many more. Wendy met her husband, Tim, while traveling in the South Pacific and in 1989, they moved to San Luis Obispo to start a family and a mail-order food business called Mo Hotta – Mo Betta. They successfully grew the business, selling it in 2000. They also successfully grew the children – Jonathan (25) and Hanna (20). From 2001-2004, Wendy was the Executive Director of the SLO Little Theatre, and a year later became the Artistic Director of the SLOIFF. In 2007, she became the festival’s full-time director. Wendy finally had the chance to write, shoot, and edit her first short documentary, “Real Men Knit” in 2007 and hopes to have time for more creative pursuits in the near future.
Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about SLO International Film Festival and its background.
Wendy Eidson: The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival was founded in 1993 by San Luis Obispo attorney, Mary A. Harris. Originally a week-long celebration of classic films, it included 32 screenings and a tribute to film director, George Sidney. He won the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking that year and began the annual tradition of awarding a successful motion picture industry personality with the prestigious award on the stage of the beautiful Fremont Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo. Mary Harris continued to spearhead the festival for the next nine years, adding the George Sidney Independent Film Competition which brought more independent cinema to San Luis Obispo helping to promote up-and-coming talent. She also added seminars to the festival which attracted a wide variety of filmmaking professionals from nearby Hollywood and all over the country.
I got involved 10 years ago as the Artistic Director in 2006, and then became the Festival Director the following year. Since then, the festival has focused mainly on featuring new un-released independent films but we continue to incorporate the history of film into the festival every year, with classics, silent films and seminars and panels that illuminate the growth of the film industry in the past 100 years. We now screen well over 100 films in 6 days, and about 85% of the films have filmmakers in attendance, which audiences always love. We have parties every evening and many special events, some of which have become annual and very popular. Our “Surf Nite in SLO” is the most well attended event of our festival every year, and we bring to town legendary surfers and great surf films. We also present an annual award named for filmmaker King Vidor who was a resident of this county for many years. This year it will be presented to Peter Bogdanovich.
BT: 2015 line up of the festival is quite interesting, how did you come up with this line up?
WE: The lineup is a mixture of films that were submitted to our film competition, and a handful of other new indie films that we found by attending and watching other film festivals. We strive to have a well-rounded program that appeals to every sensibility. Our county is quite varied, and so are our visitors, so we try not to focus on any particular genre but instead work hard to cover all of them with well made, entertaining and thought-provoking films.
BT: Who are the audiences of SLO International Film Festival? Are film fans living outside SLO attending?
WE: The audience from outside our county continues to grow each year, but we have also been increasing the local audience as well, which is exciting. About 30% of the audience comes from outside the county but we do hope to keep increasing that number. We’re fortunate that we are within a 3-4 hour drive of both Los Angeles and San Francisco, with huge populations there to draw from. Santa Barbara is a one-and-a-half hour drive from here too and a lot of film industry people live there.
BT: SLO is a very beautiful city with so many amazing small beach towns around it, it can become the Cannes of US, have you thought about it? Are all the screenings in SLO?
WE: Yes, it is an extremely picturesque county, especially in early March when the hills are brilliant green, the ocean is blue, the beaches white…it’s pretty spectacular. Filmmakers and film-goers who arrive here for the first time look around with amazement and wonder why they’ve never been before…and they vow they’ll be back. San Luis Obispo is still an undiscovered gem, and we do wonder how the festival will be impacted when the area becomes more discovered by tourists. The wine industry is working hard to make that happen, and so are we. But we love the sleepy, small town atmosphere, so I don’t think anyone wants to see it develop into a bustling tourist stop either…there has to be that fine balance between a fun place to visit and a nice place to live.
We have screenings all over the county…we are a countywide festival. We bring the movies to the people and always say there’s something happening on a screen near you! This is a very large county, divided by a small mountain range, so north and South County are quite distinct, and it’s often challenging to get people to make the drive in either direction. San Luis Obispo is right in the middle, so that is our hub and where our HQ and 3 movie venues are located. We also have venues in Paso Robles and Atascadero (North County), Avila Beach and Pismo Beach (South County) and San Simeon (on the coast.) Every movie screens once in San Luis Obispo and then a second time in a different part of the county. This helps get filmmakers and audience into different parts of the county, and they can go wine tasting and sight-seeing at the same time.
BT: Has international cinema any presence at SLO International Film Festival?
WE: Yes, always. We don’t have as many foreign feature-length films this year for some reason, but quite a few of the short films are from a variety of countries. Some years, we focus on a particular country…a few years ago, it was Irish Cinema. So we’ll probably do that again sometime soon and choose a different country to focus on.
BT: Are there any guest filmmakers attending the festival?
WE: Many! This year we’ll have more than ever because of a few special events. We expect to have 90 filmmakers here, plus another 25 or so special guests.
BT: Are there any special events during the festival?
WE: We have a special event (and sometimes more than one) every night of the festival. Highlights include Surf Nite (3/12), “Citizen Kane” in the private Hearst Castle Theatre (3/13), Indie Film & King Vidor Award event (3/14) and a “Singin’ in the Rain” Sing-along (3/15).
BT: How film fans can attend the festival? Are there any discounts for the film students?
WE: There are discounts for students ($10 as opposed to $12 for movie tickets). There are festival passes that range from 6-movie passes to day passes to full access passes that include all films, parties and panels. We try to keep prices affordable for all the passes…the most expensive full access pass is only $285, and the least expensive is $40. We want as many people to come and strive to keep the festival accessible to everyone.