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Let's go to the movies! The SLO International Film Festival returns to in-person screenings

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There's something magical about entering a dim auditorium with a bunch of strangers, waiting for the lights to extinguish, and then immersing yourself in another world. Watching a film in a movie theater isn't like watching a film at home, with a thousand little distractions and a pause button at the ready. No, seeing a film in a theater is a commitment to engage, and when the story ends and the lights come up, you know you've shared an experience with those seated near to you.

It's an experience fewer and fewer of us have enjoyed lately. Movie ticket sales peaked back in 2002 with 1.58 billion sold and have been slowly declining ever since, down to 1.23 billion in 2019. Then the pandemic hit, and ticket sales collapsed. In 2021, just 499 million tickets were sold while streaming services exploded. Ticket sale are going up again, but there's a long way to go before movie theaters fully recover.

Likewise, the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival took a heavy hit the last two years, forcing the festival to go virtual. This year, it returns with live screenings and events starting Tuesday, April 26, and running through Sunday, May 1. Most of the films will also be available virtually on May 1, but festival organizers are really hoping the public is ready to venture back into theaters and fully engage.

LIVE AND IN PERSON SLO Film Fest Executive Director Skye McLennon is excited about a return to in-person screenings after the pandemic forced the SLOIFF to go virtual last year. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMILLE SILVERA
  • Photo Courtesy Of Camille Silvera
  • LIVE AND IN PERSON SLO Film Fest Executive Director Skye McLennon is excited about a return to in-person screenings after the pandemic forced the SLOIFF to go virtual last year.

"Ticket sales are picking up and things are going well," SLOIFF Executive Director Skye McLennon noted. "I think there's a little hesitancy to come back out, but at the same time, people are really excited to come out and do things, so that's been really positive."

There's a lot to do at this year's festival, which is chock-full of amazing films and exciting events. Every night there's a highlight.

FIRE OF LOVE The Opening Night Celebration on Tuesday, April 26, pairs a pre-party at Luna Red with a Fremont Theater screening of this documentary about volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SAN LUIS OBISPO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
  • Photos Courtesy Of The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival
  • FIRE OF LOVE The Opening Night Celebration on Tuesday, April 26, pairs a pre-party at Luna Red with a Fremont Theater screening of this documentary about volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft.

On opening night, Tuesday, April 26, Fire of Love screens at the Fremont Theater. The film follows French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as they roam the planet studying volcanoes ... until they lost their lives to a volcanic explosion in 1991. There's a reception at Luna Red before the screening, with The Taproots playing.

In fact, there's a ton of music coming up.

"This year we've definitely tried to plan things to tie in live music," McLennon continued. "It's a huge component of the festival this year."

COAST The Central Coast Filmmaker Showcase at the Fremont Theater  includes a Red Carpet welcome and live performances by Pancho & The Wizards, Dog Party, and Hannah Kenny—all featured in the locally filmed movie—on Wednesday, April 27. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SAN LUIS OBISPO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
  • Photos Courtesy Of The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival
  • COAST The Central Coast Filmmaker Showcase at the Fremont Theater includes a Red Carpet welcome and live performances by Pancho & The Wizards, Dog Party, and Hannah Kenny—all featured in the locally filmed movie—on Wednesday, April 27.

On Wednesday, April 27, the Fremont hosts the screening of Coast, a film made in Santa Maria and Guadalupe that follows 16-year-old Abby, who's desperate to escape her small-town life. When she falls for the lead singer of a touring rock band, she has to decide whether to leave her family and follow her heart. The evening includes musical performances by Pancho & The Wizards, Dog Party, and Hannah Kenny—all featured in the film.

The always popular Surf Nite happens on Thursday, April 28, at the Sunset Drive-In, with a concert by the Boomer Surf Band before a screening of The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez, a new film about the Pipeline legend by award-winning documentary filmmaker and skateboarder Stacy Peralta. There are always lots of vintage cars at this event.

On Friday, April 29, the Fremont Theater hosts the Music Video Showcase. This is the second year the festival had a music video category. There were a bunch of great videos last year, and this year promises to be even better. There'll also be live music curated by WAV Zine featuring alt-jazz quintet Raccoondog and alt-rock act Swede and Skogen.

The Awards Night Gala is in the Fremont on Saturday, April 30, emceed by Turner Classic Movie channel host Ben Mankiewicz, who'll present awards to luminaries such as actress Dale Dickey and actor, director, writer, and producer Michael Showalter. This is the place to be to see and be seen!

The festival closes on Sunday, May 1, and there are two very cool events. In the Festival Lounge at Hotel San Luis Obispo, there's a panel called Adapting Your Script from Short to Feature, where screenwriter Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, Captain Marvel) and filmmaker Jeff Graham will workshop attendees' ideas. That evening, the festival concludes with a screening of the stand-out documentary MIJA at the Fremont.

In between these big events, dozens of films will be shown: shorts and features, documentaries and narrative films.

"What we're trying to stress to people is that the filmmakers will be here," McLennon said. "They haven't been able to show their films to a live audience for two years. They're excited to see audience reactions and talk about their films, and just get feedback. Pretty much all the short-film makers are coming, most of the documentary filmmakers are coming as well, and some of the narrative directors are coming."

EXPRESSIVE Film, television, and stage actress Dale Dickey, who's starred in Winter's Bone, Hell or High Water, The Pledge, and dozens of other films, will receive this year's King Vidor Award at the April 30 awards night at the Fremont Theater. - PHOTO COURTESY OF COW HIP FILMS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Cow Hip Films
  • EXPRESSIVE Film, television, and stage actress Dale Dickey, who's starred in Winter's Bone, Hell or High Water, The Pledge, and dozens of other films, will receive this year's King Vidor Award at the April 30 awards night at the Fremont Theater.

And the winner is ...

This year's King Vidor Award winner is one of the most recognizable female character actors working today. She's had small but pivotal roles in films such as The Pledge with Jack Nicholson, Domino with Keira Knightly, Changeling with Angelina Jolie, Winter's Bone with Jennifer Lawrence, Super 8 with Elle Fanning, Being Flynn with Robert De Niro, Iron Man 3 with Robert Downey Jr., and Hell or High Water with Jeff Bridges.

This year Dickey has the lead role in A Love Song, which is screening as part of the film festival.

"It's so nice to see her because she's always been kind of a supporting role, so to see her as the star—it's so well-deserved," McLennon said. "She's one of those people that, maybe they don't know her name, but when they see her, they're like, 'Oh, I know her.'"

You certainly will. She's got an amazingly recognizable and expressive face, and she has a knack for bringing just the right tone to her roles. She's a lifelong actor. She started theater acting as a child with the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennessee.

"Once I did that I didn't want to stop ever," Dickey said via phone. "I was nine, and I did three plays a year at the university growing up. I just loved it."

After high school, she attended the university as a student from 1980 to '84 before moving to New York, where she admitted she struggled to get work and secure an agent.

"But I loved it," she said. "I pounded the pavement, I worked with casting directors, I started doing regional theater, and I did one Broadway show, and then I started to do some film and television."

She got her first film role in 1995 in The Incredible True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, did a TV series in New York with Tyne Daly called Christy, and finally decided to relocate "to La-La Land, where I've been ever since," she explained.

She goes back to the University of Tennessee, which awarded her an honorary MFA, every five years or so and does a play with their MFA students. Does she have a preference between theater, TV, and film?

"Work is good, so I take it where it comes, but I still do theater when I can—usually about one show a year. It's such a different discipline, and I hope it will always be in my life, but I'm really enjoying learning more and more about camera work. I've been doing it for a long, long time. I've done tons of guest artist roles, guest stars, and recurring roles, so I learn by being on set. I love film. I love television as well, but I particularly like film."

Winter's Bone in 2010 was definitely a breakout role for Dickey, earning her a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress. She played Merab, a tough but practical country woman trying to protect the "old ways."

"Winter's Bone was such a unique film, and so well embraced by so many people," she noted. "The weirdest thing about going through that awards ceremony was, I look very different if I'm in a dress with makeup and my hair done, and a lot of people—I think because the movie did such a great job blending unknowns and known character actors with real local people—people didn't recognize me. I'd be introduced, 'This is Dale,' and they sort of look, and they do a double take."

Dickey's face is one for the ages. She describes it as "hard edged," and she drew on her experience growing up near the Smoky Mountains, "populated by people who sometimes frightened me," to play Merab and make her violence understandable.

"I've worked really hard and I still love what I do. I've been really blessed to work as much as I have," Dickey said.

She explained that making A Love Song was particularly scary because she was "carrying a film, and I've never done that—not a lead in a film—I've done them on stage," but she was incredible in the film, communicating volumes without dialogue, simple by letting emotions wash over her face.

When she told Tyne Daly she was going to Hollywood, Daly told her she wasn't what Hollywood was looking for physically, but to be happy that she was a character actress because she was going to work more when she got older.

Dickey was also told by a New York casting agent to be happy to be typecast because "'that means they see something in you that they don't see in anyone else. Even though you don't have a Southern accent, you reek Southern.'

"I've embraced being typecast as sort of Southern white trash, and I started getting work," Dickey said. "If I'm going to be typecast, it's been a dang fun journey. I've had a lot of gritty, crusty, unsavory roles, but they're meaty and I love digging deep and trying to find the humanity in all of them."

Spotlight award winner

New Times spoke to this year's spotlight award winner, Michael Showalter, known for writing and directing Hello, My Name is Doris, and directing The Big Sick and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the latter of which earned a Best Actress Academy Award for Jessica Chastain. He's also starred in, written, and directed the Wet Hot American Summer series, and created the hit TV series Search Party, and he directed four episodes of The Dropout.

QUADRUPLE THREAT Actor, director, writer, and producer Michael Showalter—known for directing Hello, My Name is Doris, The Big Sick, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye—will also attended awards night on April 30. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BROUK PETERS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Brouk Peters
  • QUADRUPLE THREAT Actor, director, writer, and producer Michael Showalter—known for directing Hello, My Name is Doris, The Big Sick, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye—will also attended awards night on April 30.

He loved comedy as a kid, mentioning Monty Python, Airplane!, and Mel Brooks films—stuff he calls "absurd." These days he's attracted to creating characters who are "off the beaten track." He liked characters who are "stuck in a strange situation or misunderstood in some way or are looking for something they can't seem to find."

"I'm drawn to unlikable characters," Showalter admitted. "I'm drawn to those qualities in people that are awkward or uncomfortable. I think that makes them more interesting."

Though he's been in front of and behind the camera, he now prefers directing, which "checks every box for me. As a director I can kind of do a little bit of everything. I'm working on the script, so I'm exercising that muscle. I'm working with the actors, so even though I'm not on camera, I'm involved with talking about the performance. I don't feel a strong pull to be on camera anymore. I'm interested in the business side of it as well, working with the studio, talking about the marketing, figuring out how to help get the work to an audience and position it in the right way."

He said he's looking forward to attending our film festival.

"It's such a great chance to see movies that you wouldn't see," he said. "I love movies, and I love the atmosphere of a film festival. I love it, and I feel very honored to come." Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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