One might think, given the bounty of recreational activities the Gold Coast has to offer — to say nothing of the ‘just do it’ ethic of its populace – that perhaps such a passive, indoor activity as cinema might not find as much of an audience here as in other regions.

That thought would not be correct.

With dozens of theaters and hundreds of screens throughout the county, cinema thrives on the Gold Coast — and there’s good reason for it.  Not only do we boast an educated, thoughtful and generally sophisticated populace, Ventura County is also home to hundreds of Tinseltown professionals, employed in a wide array of cinematic crafts, both celebrated and mundane.

By all means, cinemania runs deep on the Gold Coast, as was recently demonstrated by the success of the ninth annual Ojai Film Festival, which was once again well supported and attended, drawing audiences from far and wide. In fact, that success was sufficient to warrant a dramatic expansion for the festival’s 10th anniversary, as festival chairman David Shor recently announced. Henceforth, the festival will become regionalized, morphing into the “Ojai/Ventura International Film Festival” as it adds well-known Venturans to its board of directors and second screenings of its celebrated slate in some of Ventura’s finest cinematic venues.

“Our expansion is part of a natural trend,” Shor explains. “This year we truly drew an international audience, which was very well hosted by the incomparable Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. Next year, as we add the luster and charm of Ventura and its beaches and its terrific theatrical venues, we will finally, truly become a destination festival. By branding ourselves as a regional event, our reach and appeal broadens from Santa Barbara all the way down to Los Angeles.”

Next year will also see the return of the popular Celebrity Golf Tournament, and will take advantage of the festival’s new accreditation with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), which adds a BAFTA award to the fest’s other jury prizes.

The Ojai fest’s expansion is timely not only in commemoration of the close of its phenomenally successful first decade, but for the fact that by the time its curtain is next raised it will have been joined by the first year of the recently announced “Ventura Film Festival” which plans to unveil its own slate of films March 27-29 at the Elks Lodge in Ventura.

The brainchild of filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano, the Ventura fest departs from what might seem obvious competition with the Ojai fest on a number of fronts. With its focus on “Neighborhood Cinema,” the freshman event takes aim at the somewhat more modest effort that lies at the heart of stories of local and regional focus. “Neighborhood Cinema is a direct effort to empower those in our community whose stories and experiences are routinely overlooked,” explains DeStefano. “We want to promote and encourage the deeply personal visions of a new generation of storytellers — to not only break the traditional barriers that once existed between filmmakers of modest yet powerful vision and a would-be audience for that vision, but also to encourage would-be filmmakers to take the leap to allow that vision to be expressed, in their own unique and personal voices.”

Unlike the Ojai fest, which debuts its entries on the big screen, the Ventura fest is intended as a “digital cinema festival,” which will eschew the sweep and scale of local theaters, instead unspooling their catalog on more modest screens at the Elks hall. “We want our first year to be an intimate experience — of passion for film, of shared cinematic ideals, and the free exchange of ideas,” De Stefano explains. “While the themes of our films are large, certainly applicable across a world stage, we’re presenting them in a smaller frame, offering with that intimacy what we hope will be greater accessibility.”

While each of the festival executives is well aware of the other, both readily dismiss the idea that the two will somehow clash for local primacy. “Yes, I heard they are getting their festival off the ground next year, and I applaud them,” notes Shore. “I know first-hand how difficult it is to run a film festival, and wish them well.”

“We certainly didn’t get into this with any idea of going head-to-head with the Ojai festival,” De Stefano agrees. “We open at different times of the year, and come to the process with a completely different focus. Sure, we both celebrate cinema in a festival atmosphere, but that’s just about where the similarity ends.”

The heads of both festivals are pleased to recount the enthusiastic manner in which Ventura has welcomed them, and both are looking forward to upcoming opportunities to meet their would-be audiences at respective public events: while DeStefano will put a face on the Ventura Film Festival on Dec. 7 at the CandleLight Kitchen & Bar, Shor will be unveiling a closer look at his expanded event on Jan. 25, during a “Best Of” Ojai’s 2008 festival event at the Century 10 theater in Ventura followed by a celebration at Watermark.

Likewise, both festival heads agree that they prefer to let their respective catalogs speak for themselves. “We encourage anyone who loves film to look us up,” Shor offers. “We’re proud to secure archival rights to much of our catalogue, so many of our films from past festivals remain available in the Ojai library. It’s a terrific way to get acquainted with our vision and to prepare for next year – which is going to be great.”

“We’re excited to show that you don’t have to be a mogul to find an audience, and to tell your story,” DeStefano concludes. “We find the drama of the human condition in our neighborhoods every day. Small stories really can communicate very grand themes. We invite all of Ventura to join us, and see for themselves.”   

E-mail James Scolari at jimscolari@yahoo.com

Ventura Film Festival Launch Party and Benefit Auction, Sunday, Dec. 7, 5 p.m. at CandleLight Kitchen & Bar. 211 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura. 641-3845. www.venturafilmfest.com.

Ojai /Ventura International Film Festival: 640-1947, www.ojaifilmfestival.com