Surviving Santa Cruz’s most Secret Film Festival

Inside the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz for the Secret Film Festival.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What’s it like to watch 12 hours of new films starting at midnight at downtown Santa Cruz’s Del Mar Theatre? Correspondent Christopher Neely endured from “Polite Society” through “Sisu” before reemerging onto sunlit Pacific Avenue at noon Sunday. As longtime SFF theatergoers told him, it’s all in the biorhythms, “breakfast” timing — and what you could snag at the unusually supplied snack stand.

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As the blood poured from a helpless diner customer’s neck, in native widescreen format, several audience members let out revulsed groans and I, disoriented, shot out of my daze to look at my phone: 4:50 a.m.

After five hours inside the Del Mar Theatre, seven hours of unknown movies still lay ahead. Caffeine or sugar, at this point, served only to further confuse my biorhythms and guarantee an eventual crash. I suddenly found myself grateful for this gruesome slasher film about a vengeful 16-year-old girl mowing down a group of white supremacists — an efficient, though unsettling, substitute for coffee, cola and candy. I pulled my blanket over my legs, took a swig of cold water and settled in, reaffirming my commitment to finish this unique local tradition known as the Secret Film Festival.

To most, the notion of spending $33 to pull an all-nighter inside an art house cinema and watch 12 hours of new films (whose titles are kept secret from the audience) probably sounds more romantic as an idea rather than an actual experience. In Santa Cruz, however, there are enough cinephiles, misfits, students and seekers of novel adventures that the Secret Film Festival has often sold out each year since its launch in 2005. Even after three pandemic-rattled years off, 189 of 288 tickets sold for the festival’s 2023 return.

A film festival might sound like easy entertainment, but an overnight 12-hour shift of sitting in a dark theater requires some rewiring of the mind and body if one is to survive. A long beach day on Saturday and a 4:30 p.m. dinner helped trick myself into falling asleep at 7 p.m. Upon waking up at 11:15 p.m, I down a loaded matcha latte, pack my laptop, blanket, phone charger, cold-pressed juice and a large bottle of water (this is a marathon, after all) and head down to the theater, disorientation already setting in.

Downtown Santa Cruz late in the night on a warm Saturday is a stumbling mix of revelers hailing Ubers, bartenders announcing last call, students moving between dance clubs and a healthy dose of flashing police lights. The line forming underneath the bright bulbs of the Del Mar on this night is operating on a different clock. Women in onesie pajamas, men in robes, a guy in a Ninja Turtles costume, pillows and heavy blankets stuffed in duffles, tote bags brimming with snacks.

Concession stand at the Secret Film Festival
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz )

The line inside the theater is not for entry to the movies — most people have already arrived by this time — but for a revamped, late-night concession stand: homemade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, bowls of cereal, muffins, pastries, pop-tarts, chocolate-covered espresso beans, coffee and tea, and then, of course, the typical buffet of candy, soda and popcorn.

The theater echoes with the kind of freeing energy reserved for festivals. Strangers are introducing themselves, old friends are reconnecting. It is an auditorium of joy. Most move with the air of someone told only that a surprise is about to occur. As people settle into their seats, it’s clear that is exactly what happened. Everyone attending the Secret Film Festival knows only that they are about to watch six feature films that haven’t been released in Santa Cruz yet. All other details are kept close to the chest by Scott Griffin, the festival’s founder, showrunner and curator.

At about 12:10 a.m., Griffin, in a flannel button-down, jeans and a beanie, makes his way down the aisle to the front of the theater, where he is met with applause before addressing the crowd.

“It’s been a bit, huh?” Griffin says. By a show of hands, the crowd appears roughly 60% Secret Film Festival veterans, 40% rookies and two people who have been to more than 10 installments. The festival, Griffin says, will happen across two theaters. For the first and the final film slots, everyone will be in the downstairs auditorium. For films 2 through 5, attendees will have a choice between a film showing upstairs or a film showing downstairs, with roughly 10-minute intermissions between screenings.

“We can do this, right?” Griffin asks the crowd. “Look to your left, look to your right; you may be sitting next to these people for the next 12 hours, so be a good neighbor. The first movie is 90 minutes long, and that’s all I’m going to tell you because you don’t have a choice. So, it is what it is.”

As the house lights dim, the audience cheers.

Outside the Del Mar Theater's downstairs auditorium
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The first film, a high-energy action comedy called “Polite Society,” is about a teenage aspiring stunt woman trying to save her sister from being married off. The martial arts fight scenes and British sense of humor do well to maintain the festival buzz through the first two hours. The security guards dotted along the back aisle of the theater were a touch added by distributor Focus Features, Griffin later told me, to ensure no one in the audience recorded the film, which isn’t set for release until Friday.

The next slot offered a distinct choice between “Showing Up,the slow-burning story of a Portland-based ceramicist, starring Michelle Williams, or the Jay Baruchel-led “Blackberry,” a faster-paced comedy about the rise and fall of phone company Blackberry. My allergy to biopics about products sends me to “Showing Up,” a questionable choice considering the 2:15-4:15 a.m. hours present the greatest test of endurance.

Gripped by fatigue, my personal festival momentum begins to fade around 4 a.m. as I realize we’re not even halfway through. I turn to a row of festival veterans behind me, each of whom appears wide awake. I ask how they do it.

“I don’t change my sleep cycle, but I do try to adjust my biorhythms ahead of time,” one guy tells me. “I eat breakfast on Saturday at about 12 p.m., and dinner around 11 p.m. That helps trick my body into thinking it’s a different hour by the time I get in here.”

The trick, another says, is to pick one movie to sleep through, typically around films 3 and 4. I pick my spot on No. 4, a film called “Moon Garden,” starring no familiar actors, a 5-year-old girl, and a series of absurd, stop-motion images with minimal dialogue. Ahead of the film, Griffin described it as what he imagines composer and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman dreams of. For me, this is praise of the highest degree at any hour besides 6:30 a.m.

Later, Griffin tells me much of the pressure of the festival comes during its curation. Through the film selection and scheduling, he wants to help those who wish to make it through all 12 hours, while also offering opportunities for those who want to snooze without remorse, a high-wire act.

The audience at the 10th hour of the festival, just before the final film began.
The audience at the 10th hour of the festival, just before the final film began.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“You try to start with broad appeal and end with broad appeal, some real solid action or comedy movie. It’s good to go out with a bang,” Griffin says. “Usually, whatever is the most serious movie might play the second slot, so people still have energy for it. It’s like making a mixtape. In those middle slots, people can’t go anywhere since everything is closed around us, so you just try to keep people there. In early festivals, we’d have like three really hardcore horror movies in a row and people were just like, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ So that was a learning experience.”

The morning light was beginning to illuminate Pacific Avenue as I finally decided to approach the coffee station ahead of film 5. While there, I struck up an abbreviated conversation with a man from Watsonville. A first-timer and wrapped in a dog-patterned fleece blanket, he communicated only annoyance that the festival wasn’t held between 12 p.m. and 12 a.m. It is not clear whether he will be coming back next year.

The middle-innings lull ends around 10 a.m. as everyone filters into the downstairs auditorium, resuscitating the festival atmosphere from the first film, with minimally depleted ranks. Griffin indeed sends us out with a bang: an exaggerated and bloody World War II action film called “Sisu,” about a Finnish man who seems incapable of dying before brutally murdering dozens of Nazis, mostly with his bare hands or a knife.

The images of Nazis suffering painful defeats at the hands of a singularly motivated and righteous main character with a cute dog offered enough serotonin for the restless crowd to drag their blankets and pillows out into a busy and sunny Sunday afternoon, sharply contrasting once again to the brunching families and shoppers moving with purpose along Pacific Avenue.

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