San Diego International Film Festival: ‘Hummingbird’ watchers brave rain for Insider Series opener



The San Diego International Film Festival had its beginnings in 2001, thanks to event-planner Robin Laatz and her husband, Karl Kozak. In 2012, four people took over the Film Festival. These co-founders were Kevin Leap, Tonya Mantooth, Patti Judd and Dale Strack.

The Film Insider Series was born in 2015, offering six monthly screenings of not-yet-released films that often include Q&As with actors or directors and always include pre- and post-screening receptions where film-lovers can mingle over cocktails and canapés and talk about movies.

This year’s Insider Series kicked off Feb. 13, 2019 at ArcLight Cinemas La Jolla with “The Hummingbird Project,” a thriller about the high-stakes game of high-frequency trading. It stars Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard as two cousins on Wall Street with a multimillion-dollar dream of building a 1000-mile fiber-optic tunnel that could cut one millisecond off the time it takes to get data across the country — the time of one flap of a hummingbird’s wings. And Salma Hayek plays their powerhouse NYSE boss.

About an hour before showtime, on a dark and stormy afternoon, I met and chatted with Dr. Howard and Barbara Milstein, two of SDIFF’s biggest fans and patrons who are also longtime La Jollans.

“It’s a rainy day, but you’ll see, everyone will show up,” Barbara said. “There’s no business like show business.”

She should know: she pretty much grew up on the lot at MGM Studios, where her cousin, Louis B. Mayer, was the head man. So movies were in her blood, and when, in the early 1970s, enroute to a teacher’s credential at SDSU, she met Howard, a third-generation Minnesotan who had just joined the dermatology department at UCSD Medical School, she found they both shared a passion for film — and theater, too. It was true love.

In the late 1970s, Howard opened his office on Girard Avenue, with Barbara as his “lifetime assistant,” and they now share their passion with four generations of family. They’ve been dedicated donors and supporters of La Jolla Playhouse — from “Big River” in 1984 to the current world-premiere “Diana” — and The Old Globe as well.

For the past several years, they’ve been equally involved with SDIFF, co-chairing last year’s Oscar Viewing Party and sponsoring receptions, productions and, as Howard put it, “whatever they need.”

“This is our motto: On the stage and on the screen, dreams come true and magic happens,” he said. “And we don’t have to go up to L.A. to see the latest films,” Barbara chimed in. “The Insider Series gives us a chance to see movies before they come out, and it’s a wonderful way of meeting people.”

Afterwards, I talked with Mantooth, who curates the films for the Insider Series, which runs from February through July.

“We started the Series to keep in touch with our patrons during the year and give newcomers an experience of what the full festival in October is like,” she said. Last year’s festival screened 115 films, some of which became Oscar nominees.

And how did “The Hummingbird Project” turn out?

For a film that deals with high-level computer nerdity and the down-and-dirty details of trying to build a 4-inch-wide tunnel from Kansas to New Jersey, it was surprisingly involving, and the acting was first-rate. It also posed the question: How much is the relentless pursuit of money really worth? The projected release date is March 15, if you want to catch it in theaters.

But if you like the idea of seeing movies before everyone else does, and sharing your comments at festive events, check out the Film Insider Series. The next five films (TBD) will screen March 13, April 10, May 8, June 12 and July 10, at ArcLight Cinemas in Westfield UTC.

Through March 13, 2019, the Series’ cost is reduced to $129, or you can score an Early Bird VIP Pass for the Oct. 15-19 Festival for $499, with the Insider Series included. For both options, use Code FIS0313 at or call (619) 818-2221.