We all know that San Luis Obispo is awesome. It’s no surprise to us. But not everyone gets to experience how great this place is, so I love it when something happens here that’s recognized by the rest of the country (or the world).

Well, wouldn’t you know, something like that is happening now: the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. It starts tonight and runs through March 11. It offers a variety of activities and events to celebrate movies. Sounds like an awesome way to spend a weekend.

The festival started in 1993 when a group of locals wanted to hold a celebration of old movies, according to festival director Wendy Eidson. Four years later, the festival started its George Sidney Independent Film Competition where filmmakers could send in their own work to be judged, and the winning films were shown. In 2005, the structure of the festival changed again, and today, it screens almost entirely new movies.

That’s what most film festivals are today, Eidson said — “a way to see new films and things you wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

This year, approximately 100 films were chosen to screen at the festival, and the competition gets submissions from all over the world. The festival’s organizers are picky about what they choose to show, Eidson said, and look for a variety of films with good quality elements such as stories, editing and cinematography. The competition usually gets between 300 and 400 submissions. Eidson said the filmmakers are “pretty amazing people” who make movies “because they have a passion about something.”

“There’s so much value in that,” Eidson said. “We’re lucky to get to see them.”

The film competition has several categories, including Best Full-Length Narrative Film and Best College Student Film. There are also a competitions just for Central Coast filmmakers and one for films by younger people — as young as kindergarten students, Eidson said. The awards will be given out on March 10 at the Fremont Theater.

All of the festival’s films will be shown first in San Luis Obispo and again at various locations around the county such as Pismo Beach, Atascadero and Paso Robles. Other events will also be held throughout the county over the weekend, including a sing-along movie night at the Galaxy Theatre in Atascadero and a private tour of Hearst Castle with a screening of “Citizen Kane.”

Prior to the screening, at a reception in the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, “The Price Is Right” host Drew Carey is scheduled to award Hollywood photographer Timothy White with the festival’s Spotlight Award.

There will also be panels and workshops where filmmakers or interested attendees can learn more about movies and what goes into making them. The panels are fun for everyone, Eidson said, and offer a lot of information — one will be all about movie criticism.

The festival’s organizers want it to be a good experience for three audiences: the filmmakers who want to meet each other and get audience feedback, the attendees who see these films and the festival sponsors.

One thing they know people like is the local wine, which they made a big part of the festival during the past few years, Eidson said.

She said she’s proud of the festival’s “eclectic mix” of events and the fact that the festival is happening all over the county. Most film festivals just hold their events in one downtown area.

“That’s wonderful too, but we’ve just made more of an effort to bring the festival to people who might not come otherwise,” Eidson said.

The community gets involved in the festival in multiple ways.

Eidson said there are usually a lot of local movie submissions and local sponsors. And Cal Poly is involved this year more than ever — an art class came up with designs for some of the festival’s posters (which will be voted on by attendees at the Sports Nite event on Thursday). The Cal Poly College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Cal Poly Expressive Technologies Studio group are co-sponsors for one of the panels.

This festival attracts more than just locals and filmmakers. Every year the festival honors a professional in moviemaking with the King Vidor Award. Past recipients include Morgan Freeman, Peter Fonda and Alan Arkin. Not too shabby.

This year, the award will be presented to Sir Richard Taylor, a co-founder of the Weta Workshop visual effects company.

They’ve gotten some fascinating people to come to the festival, Eidson said, but it’s not easy.

“The more exciting the person, the busier they are,” Eidson said. “But usually when they come, they absolutely love it here.”

The festival has been growing in recent years because “people are discovering the opportunity to see really cool movies and meet really interesting filmmakers,” Eidson said. But she added it takes time for word to spread that the festival is “a really great event.”

The county itself is also being discovered more, according to Eidson, and this area is easily accessible to places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

“We’re not Hollywood,” Eidson said. “People like to come to San Luis Obispo County to get away from that.”

This event is so great for SLO and all those filmmakers who are willing to share their art with the rest of the world. Whether you’ve gone to the festival for years or are just curious to see what it’s all about, the SLO International Film Festival is sure to be an unforgettable time.

This article originally stated that Harrison Ford was scheduled to present Timothy White with the Spotlight Award. He has since been replaced by Drew Carey due to scheduling conflicts.

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