Seattle Culture

SIFF Celebrates 50

SIFF staff screened more than 7,000 movies for this year’s festival

By Rob Smith May 9, 2024


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

The Seattle International Film Festival is 48 years old (it began in 1976), but is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

How’s that, you ask? SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett has a ready answer.

“Our original founders, Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald, were deeply superstitious,” Barrett said on a recent Seattle magazine podcast. “We had a 12th, and the next year we had a 14th. And unlike humans who start at zero and become one, events start at one. Hashtag: Great at films, bad at math.”

This year’s festival runs from May 9-19 at SIFF’s four venues: SIFF Cinema Uptown, the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and, of course, the former Cinerama that straddles downtown and Belltown and is now known as SIFF Cinema Downtown. SIFF is one of the world’s largest film festivals, featuring a diverse assortment of mostly independent and foreign films and documentaries.

In honor of that 50th anniversary, SIFF has launched an archive site so people can see all the films that have played during the festival’s five-decade run. That’s approximately 18,000 movies.

SIFF screened a staggering 7,000 films before making its final selections for this year, with a focus on diversity. 

SIFF has evolved over the years, growing from a small organization that initially put on one 25-day festival into a juggernaut that showcases films all year long. Its staff shrunk to only a handful of employees at the beginning of the pandemic, but SIFF now again employs almost 30 people.

SIFF garnered headlines last year when it acquired the former Seattle Cinerama Theatre from the estate of the late Paul Allen. Allen had purchased the venue, which opened in 1963, in the 1990s. The theatre abruptly closed in 2020. It is one of only two cinemas worldwide with the capability to showcase three-strip Cinerama films on its 87-foot screen.

SIFF CEO Tom Mara calls the theatre a “cathedral of cinema.” 

“We want to make sure it stays in our hearts for years to come,” says Mara, who retired after a long career at KEXP and was actually helping SIFF search for a CEO when he was offered the job a couple years ago. “We felt we brought a public service mission to the table.”

SIFF will honor actor and Seattle native Jean Smart, who appears on the cover of the current issue of Seattle magazine, on May 18. It will also honor 94-year-old June Squibb, who you may recall from local screenwriter Bob Nelson’s 2013 movie Nebraska, on May 11. Squibb, who received an Oscar nomination for that role, is now starring in the comedy Thelma. She will receive the 2024 Golden Space Needle Award for Outstanding Contribution to Cinema.

With additional reporting by Linda Lowry.

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