It has been only five years since the San Diego International Film Festival's executive and artistic director, Tonya Mantooth, and her team started to rebuild the then-faltering event. Now, by all accounts, it is thriving.
"In 2016, we had about 23,000 people attend the festival, up to almost 4,000 more from the year before," Mantooth said. "We have seen a change on the industry side, too. More studios are taking a look at us and wanting meetings.
"Another indicator is how many film submissions we receive. It averaged around 400 when we started, and now we've hit the 2,000 mark in submissions."
This year's festival runs Oct. 4-8. In addition to screening more than 120 films, SDiFF boasts panels, parties and the Variety Night of the Stars Tribute, which will present the 2017 Gregory Peck Award of Excellence in Cinema to Sir Patrick Stewart . The British actor is best known for his roles in the "X-Men" movies and television's "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Behind the scenes, he supports Amnesty International and other nonprofits.
Mantooth explained that SDiFF works with Cecilia Peck and her family in order to choose the person who will be honored in her father's name.
"Cecilia and I talk about the actors she feels reflect her father's acting (philosophy) and social activism," Mantooth said. "Stewart stood out to Cecilia because he's respected as an actor - on stage, in serious roles and popular films - as Gregory Peck was. She also liked that they both played Captain Ahab! We are fortunate that Stewart could open up his schedule to be here."
Other actors to be honored include Heather Graham ("Boogie Nights," "Austin Powers") and Kumail Nanjiani ("The Big Sick," TV's "Silicon Valley").
The tribute - and the almost 50 foreign films that will be screened - gives the festival a global flavor. But Mantooth prefers to keep the "international" in the festival's title lowercase.
She points to entries with local ties and to the advisory boards that help choose films for the themed categories, which SDiFF calls "tracks": Environmental, American Indian, Military, and - new this year - Equestrian.
"We want the festival to reflect San Diego, and these categories do that," Mantooth noted. "Every kind of horse owner lives here, from rodeo to Arabians. A focus group of individuals who love horses guided us."
The American Indian movies will be screened on Saturday, while other tracks' entries will be sprinkled throughout the festival.
Two films have major local connections. "Butterfly Caught," a world premiere, co-stars Jess Jacobs, whose father is Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs.
"We selected the film and then got to know Jess, a dynamic young woman and actress with a strong vision of how to give back to the community," Mantooth said.
The animation short "Shine," inspired by Father Joe's Villages, explores homelessness. It is paired with "Resistance Is Life," a documentary about Syrian refugees.
SDiFF has one La Jolla venue, ArcLight Cinemas in University Towne Centre. Most of the festival's activities will take place in downtown's Gaslamp Quarter.
"We're excited about expanding our downtown footprint," Mantooth said. "We're thrilled about the partnership with the Pendry hotel, our headquarters. As a festival, we want to support how vibrant downtown is. It will be great to see so many people - and filmmakers from around the world - experience San Diego.
"Film can be transformative. We live in a divisive time right now. When you see a film, you can walk in someone else's shoes and begin to empathize with them. That's when dialogue can start. People need to come together and find commonality."
'Marshall' to open the festival
The highly anticipated movie "Marshall" will open the San Diego International Film Festival on Oct. 4. To be released nationwide in mid-October, it gives a provocative glimpse into the early life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
"Marshall" stars Chadwick Boseman, who ably portrayed Jackie Robinson in "42" and James Brown in "Get On Up." The movie follows Marshall as a young lawyer in a 1941 trial in a small Connecticut town, where a rich white woman (played by Kate Hudson ) has accused a black man of raping and kidnapping her.
Director Reginald Hudlin describes "Marshall" as "a courtroom thriller" and "a whodunit." Josh Gad , Dan Stevens and Emmy Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown are also in the cast.
"We are honored to screen 'Marshall' as the opening night film of the SDiFF," said Tonya Mantooth, executive and artistic director of the festival. "It is a powerful civil rights story focusing on the life of a young Thurgood Marshall ... an incredibly important story to share. At the SDiFF, our goal is to create empathy through film by sharing stories that allow viewers to see a variety of perspectives ... and to encourage dialogue and inclusivity by the diversity of those experiences and perspectives. We look forward to reaching into the San Diego community with this impactful film."
The screening at the Balboa Theatre will be followed by a question-and-answer session. An after-party will take place at 8:30 p.m. at Rooftop, Westgate Hotel, 1055 Second Ave., downtown.
Individual tickets to just the screening are available.
San Diego International Film Festival
When: Oct. 4-8
Where: Opening-night film and after-party at Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown; screenings at Regal Theater Horton Plaza, 475 Horton Plaza, downtown, and ArcLight Cinemas, 4425 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
Tickets: $16 individual screenings and panels; $75 day passes; $250 to $450 Weekend Fest passes
Variety Night of the Stars Tribute
When: 5:30 p.m. Oct. 5
Where: Grand Ballroom, Pendry San Diego, 550 J St., downtown
Tickets: $200 to $350
Wood is a freelance writer.