For most cinephiles scattered across the country, film festivals are a far-off notion, tucked away among the palm trees of L.A. or the ski slopes of Aspen. Not so, in Santa Barbara’s case… This year marks the 18th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, stretching across 10 days and condensed mostly to State Street, in downtown. With new executive director Jon Fitzgerald (of Slamdance Film Festival), this year’s festival promised a new horizon for the little festival that could. Major efforts were underway to create significant additions to the usual screenings that included themed events (Surf Sessions, Digital Days, Journey to Italy), numerous gala events and a project designed for the filmmakers of the future (Rosebud Project). Halfway through, Artsweek had schmoozed and sat through a bevy of celluloid, flashed our passes and offered up an insight into the only 10 days where Hollywood storms Santa Barbara in full effect.

Some highlights for Artsweek included being able to participate in Q&A with most of the filmmakers directly after seeing their films, several panel discussions and the overall willingness of those involved to bridge the expanse that usually exists between a film’s production and its release into the great unknown.

At the “Movers and Shakers” panel Sunday morning, three Hollywood heavyweights engaged in an enlightening discussion about, well, the business of movies. Tom Pollock (president of Montecito Picture Company), John Goldwyn (co-president of Paramount Pictures) and Sean Daniel (producer of “Mallrats,” “Down to Earth,” and “The Scorpion King,” to name a few) answered questions from the audience concerning why certain films were made over others (“Why no ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?'” asked one woman) as well as why the film industry chooses sequels rather than socially conscious films (particularly ones carrying a message of peace). The underlying point after enough circuitous discussion remained that filmmaking has been and always will be more of an industry than artistic outlet. Sigh.

For those interested in solely sitting in the director’s chair, the panel “Directors on Directing,” (last Sunday) offered an open discussion about the challenges of today’s film industry. Panelists included Gaspar NoŽ (“IrrŽversible”), Steve James (“Stevie”) and others. The most promising panel comes on Saturday with “It Starts With The Script,” where top screenwriters purge their trade secrets. Panelists include Academy Award nominees Bill Condon, David Hare and Nia Vardalos.

Seeing Jack Johnson make a cameo at Sunday night’s “Thicker Than Water” screening was, no doubt, the highpoint of the festival for many people. Along with Chris and Emmett Malloy, Johnson screened their 2000 film and shared rousing anecdotes afterward. Even those who, like Artsweek, lack surf knowledge, couldn’t help but sit slackjawed by the first-timers’ cinematography. (Johnson also urged UCSB students to peruse the film studies office for his first films just to grasp how poor his skills once were.)

One of the most exciting portions of this year’s festival is the addition of the “Rosebud Project,” where film students and lovers are meant to get an inside peek into the minds of some of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Screenings of Fellini’s “8 1/2” and Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” have taken place thus far with more carefree films like “House of Wax” and “Animal House,” planned for this weekend. Tagged onto the Rosebud Project is a competition between four chosen college students (three from SBCC, one from UCSB), announced Friday, who have been given seven days to produce a seven minute short. The shorts will be screened this weekend and the winner announced after.

In all, the festival seems to be buzzing with a fresher air amid itself. It seems aware of its own ability to tap into the community’s resources as well as reach out to its nearby student population. Fitzgerald and company seem capable hands to guide the festival into more a renown and respected affair, all the while maintaining a breezy atmosphere. True, there are plenty of Hollywood types, complete with scarves, condescension and the like. But the variety of films being screened is staggering in their art, and each succeeds at reminding one that independent cinema is alive and well.