SLO Surf Night SLO Film Center

The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival has wrapped its 30th annual celebration, but it enters the next year with bold new plans for a new SLO Film Center, a year-round partnership with the city’s indie cinema, the Palm Theatre.

“We want to have a year-round presence,” festival executive director Skye McLennan told MovieMaker after the festival. “That’s something we’ve wanted to do and something our audience wants. … We want to become the center of filmmaking within San Luis Obispo.”

The news came out of an event that also including a stellar Q&A with Heather Graham (recipient of the festival’s King Vidor Award) and screening of her film Chosen Family. The events also included the festival’s annual Surf Night (above), which pairs surf rock and surf movies, and its spinoff, Skate Night. The festival kicked off with a screening of the Sundance darling Ghostlight.

A music video night and special screening of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead were highlights of the Saturday night programming on April 27, and other guests included Beau Bridges, star of the festival-screened, locally shot Jay Silverman film Camera, and Josh Brolin, a festival adviser and board member who grew up in nearby Paso Robles and was a previous King Vidor recipient.

The festival’s winners, listed here, were led by Best Narrative Feature Tokyo Cowboy and Best Documentary Feature Sugarcane.

In addition to the natural beauty of California’s Central Coast, the festival benefits from the presence of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, whose student population helps ensure a youthful presence at the fest in the town of just under 50,000.

We talked with McLennan about selling out events, surfing, skating, and embracing a small-town feel 180 miles up the coast from Los Angeles.

MovieMaker: You got great turnout at the SLO events. How did you do it?

Skye McLennan: This was our fourth year since the pandemic, and every year, it’s been kind of slowly recovering from that loss. And this year was probably the first year we really saw an increase in attendance, an increase of filmmakers coming to town, and overall, sold out screenings.

We also launched a bunch of new events, like our community skate event, Skate Night, which was super successful, and really fun, and really engaged multiple different generations of people, which has been a big focus for us — we really wanted to have younger folks at the festival, and really diversify our audience. And I personally saw those efforts really, you know, expand a lot.

… I think we’ve really tapped into the sense of community within San Luis Obispo. And we partner with a lot of other nonprofits who helped bolster these events, and other organizations. So for Surf Night, for instance, we worked with Surfing for Hope, and Firestone, which is like our local beer. And so that draws out a lot of people.

And there’s several nights where we have live music, which is really big in SLO. … If you’re a small town like we are, you’re only as good as the people around you. So that is really where our strength lies, is in getting everyone to come together.

SLO International Film Festival Advantages

MovieMaker: Heather Graham mentioned from the stage, and a lot of people mentioned, how much they like being in SLO, and what a special place it is. It really does feel like you’re on vacation. Can you talk about what your festival has that not every festival does, and what makes it really special?

Skye McLennan: We’re nestled in between multiple different microclimates, you have hills, you have coastline, you have some of the most amazing wine in the world. So much different, beautiful, beautiful scenic scenery. We also have three venues downtown — we have the historical Art Deco Theatre, the Fremont, the Palm Theatre, and then a multiplex, the Downtown Centre Cinemas, and it’s really unique to have everything within walking distance.

But what I always hear is that the people here are just really nice and engaging. I’ve really tried to strike a balance where we want industry folks at the festival — we want people like Heather Graham and Chris Gardner to come and enjoy the place — but we never want it to feel like a bigger industry kind of festival where no one wants to talk to each other, or people are unapproachable.

I think when filmmakers come here, they really have a unique experience, because it’s real people watching their films, and giving them feedback, and engaging with them. I just had someone reach out to me that they had one of the most intimate and insightful Q&As ever for their film. And it was because these were real people that were getting moved and emotionally connecting with the filmmaker.

Whereas a lot of other festivals are really focused on that industry kind of Hollywood vibe, that’s really not what you’re gonna get here at SLO. It’s definitely a genuineness and a realness and authenticity.

Skye McLennan on the SLO Film Center

MovieMaker: Can you talk about the new year-round initiative?

Skye McLennan: We are partnering with the Palm Theatre to launch the SLO Film Center and run the theater under our nonprofit. In the last six months, Jim Dee, the current owner, has really moved the programming towards more retrospective cinema, which we’re finding is just having a lot more of a draw in the arthouse space. And so we’re going to continue that.

But we’ll also highlight new independent films as well. There’s many films that we can’t fit into the festival in the framework of the festival. … So if you’re a Central Coast filmmaker, you can showcase your film there, you can have your premiere there, and then we can also continue to do these initiatives that we do with other nonprofits. Because they also want a venue and a space to speak to some of the issues they’re working on. And then I think it also opens us up to exploring mini festivals, like focuses on countries or themes, that will expand what we’ve been building with the SLO film festival all year long.