Meet SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett, the Reason It's the Nation's Biggest Film Festival

Barrett loves movies so much she volunteered with the Seattle International Film Festival for years before taking a staff position. She guesses she watches 600 films a year
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This article appears in print in the May 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe.

Sarah Wilke, the Seattle International Film Festival’s (siff) executive director, puts it simply: “Beth loves watching films.” She’s referring to artistic director Beth Barrett, who since October 2016 has been the master strategist of the small army required to pull off not only SIFF’s year-round cinema offerings in three venues, but America’s largest film festival—all 400 titles of it. SIFF, now in its 44th year, runs May 17–June 10 (siff.net). (Full disclosure, I worked for SIFF seasonally in 2016 and 2017.)

Barrett started with SIFF in 1994 much like many film buffs do: as a fan, an attendee, a volunteer. (“Every year I got my 20-pack [of passes],” she says.) Slowly she was reeled in: first as a volunteer writer for the free guide and the catalog, then as volunteer manager in 2003 (her first paid position), associate publications editor, programming coordinator and finally, artistic director, taking over for longtimer Carl Spence and overseeing a movie-insatiable committee, which in 2017 comprised 26 programmers and assistants.

It wasn’t only Barrett’s stamina that brought her to that role, but her idea of what SIFF ought to bring to Seattle. Wilke notes that for Barrett, a ideal day would be one spent watching six films—and adds, “That her favorite moment of that day is thinking about how that sixth film will connect with an audience is what makes Beth an extraordinary artistic leader.”

It’s no coincidence that the relationship between SIFF and its audience has been Barrett’s priority, and, she says, what’s given the organization its reputation in the film world for being less industry-focused, more community-focused. “The connections that we are able to make between the filmmakers and audience is our greatest asset,” she says. “Seattle sees SIFF as the hometown festival, but in the larger world of festivals, we are respected for the breadth of programming.” Providing this volume is a year-round task for Barrett as well as the programmers, who, she says, “have spent years honing their understanding of the audience around them.” For her part, Barrett estimates that she screens about 600 titles a year. “I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing whether or not a film is going to find an audience.”

So, what do she and the programmers look for? “The SIFF audience requires a good, compelling story, something that they can sink their teeth into….[they’re] also incredibly wide-reaching and adventurous, willing to take a lot of chances.” She cites Loving Vincent as a recent example of this: a film that didn’t get much prerelease hype, but whose promotion Seattle audiences helped ignite by word of mouth. Seattle audiences, she says, “are willing to go along with these accidents.”

With the greater film community in mind, Barrett wants SIFF to serve all lovers of great cinema: festival fans, year-round filmgoers and the filmmaking community at large, and she strives to offer unique experiences for each. “We are in the all-boats-rise category,” she says of this full-circle approach. Total-immersion festival fans get that I-first-saw-it-at-SIFF feeling; year-round film fans discover movies they wouldn’t encounter otherwise; and the greater filmmaking community can participate in the festival’s packed calendar of roundtables and Q&As, providing endless opportunities to let film lovers—and makers—interact.

Looking ahead, Barrett is most excited about guiding SIFF into the future using new technologies and platforms, which, in tech- and trend-savvy Seattle, means embracing virtual reality and episode-based series. “We’re going to support filmmakers where they are,” Barrett vows. The festival’s “360/VR Storytelling” workshops, launched in 2017, present new work using this emerging technology. For web series, Barrett cites some local productions at the forefront of this trend: “Automata [a 1920-set sci-fi-noir featuring robot detectives] was released last year, and that was big. JourneyQuest [airing on YouTube] is on season three, and is fully fan supported.”

Born in Milwaukee, the daughter of an Air Force doctor and an Air Force nurse, Barrett came to film circuitously—not as a film student, but via college studies in modern English literature and art history. From these disciplines, she learned to think critically, “how to look at something and bring in all the cultural references and how to talk about it beyond ‘I liked it/I didn’t like it.’” She strives to nurture this sort of thoughtful viewing among Seattle’s filmgoers, and says that the way to start is simply to bring them together. In spite of technology’s metastasized film-delivery system (even Kubrick surely never dreamed you could one day watch a movie on a phone), “people still want to do it in a big room,” Barrett says. “There’s still that need to sit in community in the dark.”

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