How SIFF Became the Country's Biggest International Film Festival

Tickets | © Brad Coy / Flickr
Photo of Samantha Ladwig
1 June 2018

Seattle cinephiles, get ready for popcorn, candy, and the best of independent cinema because the Seattle International Film Festival has officially begun.

On May 17th, Seattle kicked off its annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) with Isabel Coixet’s latest movie, The Bookshop, a celebrated picture about the obstacles one woman faces when she tries to open the first bookstore in a small town. This year, SIFF is celebrating its 44th anniversary, and with over 400 films scheduled from 90 different countries, the fest shows no sign of slowing down. It’s this type of cinematic enthusiasm that made SIFF the biggest film festival in the United States.

The vacation begins #siff2018 #uptown

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SIFF isn’t a short film festival by any means, which is why it’s the biggest fest in the country. The celebration spans an entire 25 days, this year from May 17 to June 10. It began in 1976, thanks to the efforts of Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald, then theater owners of the Moore Egyptian Theater, which is known today as the Moore Theater. With only a dozen people in attendance, Ireland and Macdonald kicked off the fest’s first year with a screening of the eventual cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Since its beginning, as seen in their opening film, SIFF curated a program of oddities that catered to audiences looking for something a little more niche and a little less Hollywood. Specifically, unseen foreign films, obscure documentaries, riveting shorts, upcoming U.S. features, and local works that highlighted the talent thriving within the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after its opening, Ireland and Macdonald lost their lease and the festival uprooted to the Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill, a venue that continues to play a major role in the festival today.

As the festival expanded, so did its attendees. Soon after its first year, SIFF was accurately deemed a festival for movie enthusiasts rather than a festival for the Hollywood industry. And SIFF owned that reputation. Almost ten years after its opening, the festival established the Golden Space Needle award, an audience-rated award given to the fest’s most popular movie.

SIFF’s efforts to break away from the confinements of traditional film festival programming paid off. In 2006, alongside Mayor Greg Nickels, SIFF announced that they were in the midst of building a year-round theater for the organization that catered to the best of independent cinema, thus making SIFF an official Seattle institution.

Through the years, SIFF screened a number of independent hits that went on to gain critical praise, like Lasse Hallström’s My Life as a Dog, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, and Ridley Scott’s Alien. All were films by some of cinema’s most iconic directors, though they weren’t known as that at the time.

But it’s not just their eye for talent that contributes to their ongoing success—it’s also their efforts to foster that talent. SIFF is an organization constantly reshaping itself to provide space for emerging filmmakers from all backgrounds. From summer filmmaking bootcamps for young students to the 4th World Indigenous Media Lab, a year-round training program for indigenous filmmakers, SIFF has maintained its mission of bringing new and untold stories to the screen.

SIFF continues to circulate a selection of offbeat films from around the world. What started as a two-week festival of 13 carefully selected films has grown astronomically to become what it is today, the biggest film festival in the United States.

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