San Diego International Film Festival switches up the format as it celebrates 20 years

Olivia Colman, wearing sunglasses, sits on a beach chair and looks out.
Olivia Colman stars in “The Lost Daughter,” which will be screened at the San Diego International Film Festival.

This year’s fest will feature in-person events, as well as virtual screenings for those who aren’t yet comfortable venturing out in public


For 2021, the San Diego International Film Festival returns with a new format befitting the COVID-19 era.

Last year’s festival was severely limited, due to COVID restrictions, and was scaled back to just four days. Some viewings were held at drive-in theaters, while everything else appeared virtually. This year’s festival runs a more typical length in keeping with past years, from October 14-24.

Tonya Mantooth, the festival’s CEO, co-founder and artistic director, said there will be still limited but more in-person screenings. For the first time, select screenings will take place in a dynamic fashion at venues around the city.

“This year, we knew that we would want to create something where people felt comfortable,” Mantooth said. “So, yes, while things are starting to open up, people are still cautious and we really wanted to respect that.”

Mantooth explained that, at the same time, the festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and the team wanted to really make a splash. The best way to both celebrate the festival’s milestone while being COVID-safe, everyone decided, was to create smaller viewings across various locations around San Diego.

Ultimately, Mantooth says that everyone at the festival understands that the general requirements include environments that “feel safe” and are “not enormous.”

“Typically, we have large parties and big galas,” Mantooth said. “This year will be a much more intimate experience with three days at Balboa Park, then at the Catamaran, where we changed the hotel’s meeting rooms into screening rooms and people can enjoy being on the bay. We also wanted to recognize the military influence in the city, which is why we’ll be on the top deck of the Midway, honoring the men and women that serve,” she said.

Also keeping with the COVID era, there will still be a virtual viewing platform for those who have decided that in-person events are still too risky. Mantooth says that, while some community is obviously lost by not being able to gather in person for these film viewings, there are clear benefits to operating online, even in part, that the festival would like to continue going forward.

“We experienced our ability to reach outside the region ... people just want to see great films. The virtual elements allowed people to still experience that. We were also able to do Q&A sessions with filmmakers from around the world. So, while we always have a lot of filmmakers in attendance, it was incredible to have a panel where you’ve got a filmmaker in Russia, you’ve got a filmmaker in Brazil, but everyone’s able to be there. That is something that wouldn’t have happened before,” Mantooth said.

Many of the selected films for this year’s festival reflect wider social and political pains that are being felt throughout the world. Mantooth said that around 3,200 films were submitted from 65 countries — “a huge voice.”

Mantooth noted that many flims are from female voices, including two gala films. “The Last Daughter” is directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and stars Olivia Colman, and “The Power of the Dog,” which is based on a 1967 novel by the same name, is directed by Jane Campion.

Continuing along that line, race issues were something Mantooth said organizers specifically sought to represent this year. “One of the things that’s part of our mission statement is that there are many things that divide us, but what we need to look for is what we can find in common. How do we bridge that divide and not increase it?” she said, referring to racial divisions throughout society.

“One of the films is called ‘Finding Fellowship,’ and it will be one of our in-person screenings,” Mantooth said. It’s about a racially divided town that comes together because of a shared church, bringing new perspectives for all characters in the movie. A panel discussing those dynamics will accompany the screening, which includes local KGTV vice president Leon Clark.

“Those are topics that a film festival can take on, and need to take on,” Mantooth said. “Because it’s all about, ‘How do you walk in someone else’s shoes?’ Because that’s the only way you can really develop a sense of empathy. And once you have empathy, now you can have a conversation. That is the way we feel like people can come together. That translates out of what we’ve curated this year.”

Additional festival highlights:

Mantooth notes that the festival has been able to highlight “a lot of studio premieres” in the in-person screenings. She mentions “C’mon, C’mon” with Joaquin Phoenix as a particular draw, as well as “Belfast,” a film about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which stars Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench. She also lists “Spencer,” which is about the late Princess Diana and stars Kristen Stewart, as being particularly buzzworthy.

“All of these films are already getting Oscar buzz,” Mantooth said. “This is an opportunity for an audience here in San Diego to come out and see these films before anybody else.”

San Diego International Film Festival

When: October 14-24

Where: Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego Museum of Art, Catamaran Resort, The USS Midway Museum

Tickets: $259 VIP pass; $159 in-person festival pass; $50 Midway screening and reception pass; $16 individual tickets. Virtual passes are $49 or $29 for individual weekends.