The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival was founded by Mary A. Harris, a local attorney who was inspired to bring a film festival to San Luis Obispo after attending festivals in Telluride, Los Angeles, and Telluride. The inaugural Festival was launched in 1993 with the support of a special grant from the City of San Luis Obispo, along with the key involvement of Jim Dee and the Palm Theatre. The Festival began with a focus on classic and restored films, with Harris as the Executive Director, and Cathy Peacock as Artistic Director. Veteran film director George Sidney was the first recipient of the King Vidor Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Art of Filmmaking, and Sidney became an enthusiastic booster for the event. In recognition of his contributions to film, as well as his involvement with the Festival, the Festival’s independent film competition was named in his honor.
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Mary Harris continued to lead the festival for the next nine years. As Artistic Director, Cathy Peacock created the George Sidney Independent Film Competition which brought more independent cinema to San Luis Obispo helping to promote up-and-coming talent. They also added seminars to the festival which attracted a wide variety of filmmaking professionals from nearby Hollywood and all over the country.