Months of planning, multiagency cooperation go into keeping International Film Festival safe

This year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday evening, will once again be a fully in-person event. That means extra precautions are necessary.
Attendees of Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala walk the red carpet in 2019. (Photo: Russell Einhorn)

Three years after the last in-person Palm Springs International Film Festival was held, it’s not just celebrities and organizers hoping all goes well. A small army of security, including the city’s police force, has been prepping for the big event for months.

January 2020, just months before the world shut down, was the last time the Film Festival we had come to know was held. In-person events were canceled in 2021 and again in 2022. On Thursday night, that all changes, as the city will again play host to dozens of actors, directors, and producers in addition to the estimated 135,000 attendees in a celebration of international features. 

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It all starts when the likes of Colin Farrell, Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, Viola Davis, Bill Nighy, Brendan Fraser, and others will walk the red carpet before the Palm Springs Film Awards Gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center. 

Keeping a close eye on the screaming fans, photographers, and the red carpet will be law enforcement officers whose job it is to ensure the massive event is safe. 

Big cities like Los Angeles or New York City are used to major events like these and have sizable police forces to account for the potential increased security threat. But Palm Springs is a town of about 45,000 with a police force that’s just a fraction of those found in major cities. 

To deal with the high-profile event, the Palm Springs Police Department starts planning early, soliciting the help of not only nearby agencies, but security companies assigned to celebrities and even the FBI.

“We start planning about two months before the festival,” Lt. Gustavo Araiza explained Wednesday.  “It’s a collaborative effort. We have meetings with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, the Palm Springs International Film Society, and personal security teams for the talent.” 

The FBI is crucial for assisting in potential threat assessments, Araiza said, while the Sheriff’s Department and PSPD keep an eye on any red flags online. Actors might have their own private security guards or be guarded by a team provided by the film studio, so it’s essential that they’re looped into safety conversations as well.

Still, no two film festivals are the same. Every year different actors come through town, and with them come different threats. 

“You might have talent that has had some past threat assessments,” said Araiza. “Those are things that we want to know ahead of the event.”

Events like the Oscars and the Golden Globes are invite-only. But Araiza notes that the threat level is different for the PSIFF because, “If an anonymous average Joe can spend a lot of money for a ticket, they can be in the same room as the talent.” 

That necessitates extra precautions, including screening for weapons. “A lot of work is done behind the scenes that the community doesn’t know about to ensure the event is safe,” he said.

Araiza advises attendees to trust their gut and, if they feel like something is off, notify a nearby officer.

“You should always be mindful of your surroundings,” he said. “If you get a weird feeling, don’t hesitate to speak with the law enforcement that is present. That’s why we’re there.”

After every film festival, the law enforcement groups reconvene with the festival organizers to discuss what worked and what didn’t and how they can improve their security plan for next year. But if PSPD and the other agencies do their jobs, the attendees and talent should barely notice their presence and be able to focus on enjoying the films. 

That’s how it should be, Araiza noted.

“With the backdrop of the San Jacinto mountains, it’s quite a unique event,” he said. “It makes it a great time for everybody involved.”

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