History of SIFF

In celebration of our 50th anniversary, we’ve compiled some of the most pivotal moments in SIFF history. 

The First Five Years

May 14, 1976 - The first Seattle International Film Festival opens at the Moore-Egyptian Theatre. The festival’s founders, Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald, took over the historic theatre the previous year, renovating and installing a screen and sound system while living in the basement. They reopened it as the MooreEgyptian in December 1975, showing a mix of classic Hollywood revivals and foreign films, before launching the film festival. It featured 18 films from several countries and wowed audiences and veteran film exhibitors alike, the latter of whom predicted the Festival to flop.


By 1980, the festival had grown to span an entire month, featuring over 70 films and becoming, according to The Seattle Times, “one of the city’s most valuable cultural resources.” For their part, Seattle audiences earned a reputation as “a decisive judge of cinematic trends and quality,” making producers and distributors around the world “increasingly receptive to the Seattle International Film Festival as a barometer of this country’s tastes in movies.”

FOOLs buttons

From Buttons To Fools
Jean Colman was enlisted to create buttons for ushers. With help from Steve Smith, they
created staff, logo, and film buttons. The buttons gained popularity with film fanatics and became the way to identify one another. From these affiliations, around the 4th or 5th Festival, it is said that the FOOLs were born.


In 1985, the Festival began operating out of the new Egyptian Theatre. The Festival was thriving and now included filmmaker discussions and new programs like the Midnight Movie Series, Tributes, Retrospectives, all-night marathons, short film competitions, Secret Festival, and the Golden Space Needle Audience Awards. In 1986, Stage Fright Inc. (Ireland and Macdonald’s company) sold its lease on the Egyptian to Landmark Theatres but continued operations there until 1989. The proceeds sustained the Festival, but by 1989, dwindling funds and event costs exceeding revenues signaled a financial challenge.

Secret Fest


Secret Fest sneaks onto the Scene
Known for its oath of silence and hard-core regulars, SIFF introduces Secret Fest to feature films that cannot be publicly screened.


The New Egyptian
When founders Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald lose their lease at the Moore Egyptian, they take over the former Masonic temple in Capitol Hill and convert it into the Egyptian Theatre.

Introducing the Golden Space Needle Awards
SIFF introduces one of the few film festival audience-determined awards in the world at the time. The first Best Film winner: Kiss of the Spider Woman.

14th Seattle International Film Festival poster


The Superstitious Skip
In a nod to the superstitious leaders Darryl Macdonald and Dan Ireland, SIFF dodges the 13th and jumps straight to 14th Festival.


In 1990, Stage Fright Inc. transfers the Festival rights to the newly formed nonprofit, Cinema Seattle, and soon after initiates off-season promotional screenings and launches a membership program.

By the mid-’90s, SIFF had established itself as a year-round exhibitor,hosting special screenings, the inaugural Women in Cinema Festival, and film discussion series. In 1996, the Filmmakers Forum was launched to connect local filmmakers and students with industry experts, part of the organization’s broader educational initiatives.



Cinema Seattle Forms
Cinema Seattle is founded, becoming the new nonprofit administration for the Seattle International Film Festival and future programming endeavors.

Party Girl


Ushering in the Streaming Era
SIFF is the first festival to broadcast an entire film over the Internet with Party Girl, which also screened at The Egyptian simultaneously.


After nearly three decades of talking about it, SIFF finally gets a new year-round theater in 2007, turning McCaw Hall into a cinematheque-style movie venue, featuring a variety of limited-run debuts, new-print revivals of classic films, and mini-festivals.

In 2011, SIFF makes the move to the Uptown Cinema and SIFF Film Center, increasing showing capacity to four screens. The Festival continues to grow and is lauded as the largest, most-attended film festival in the U.S.

SIFF logo


From Cinema Seattle to SIFF Group
Cinema Seattle rebrands with the name SIFF and puts in place a strategic plan to reinstate year-round film programming.

Film Center at McCaw Hall


Lighting Up Mccaw Hall
As arthouse cinemas close across Seattle, SIFF Cinema opens at McCaw Hall, inaugurating its return to year-round cinema with a Janus Films retrospective.


In 2014, SIFF announces the acquisition of SIFF Cinema Uptown (previously leasing) and the reopening of the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. To expand community outreach, SIFFsupports launches in 2016 to provide discounted venue rentals, plus marketing and technical support to PNW filmmakers, artists, and nonprofits. By 2019, SIFF reaches over 350,000 attendees annually through SIFF Cinema, SIFF Education, and the Festival.

Film Center


Putting Down Roots
SIFF Cinema makes the move from McCaw Hall to the Uptown Cinema and unveils its new headquarters with theater at the SIFF Film Center.


The Egyptian Homecoming
SIFF acquires the historic Egyptian Theatre, reopening it as SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and announces its official purchase of the Uptown.

2020 >>>

With theaters closed due to the pandemic, SIFF struggles with diminished revenue and staff. Relying on the generosity of supporters, SIFF revives the Festival in 2021 with a 10-day virtual format and returns to theaters that fall with the first DocFest.

2023 marks a milestone, as SIFF acquires the former Cinerama, reopening it as SIFF Cinema Downtown, heralding a new phase of growth and expansion.


Cinemas Reopen After Pandemic Shutdown
Eighteen months after the pandemic shuttered theaters, SIFF Cinemas reopen with the launch of DocFest, SIFF’s first-ever documentary film festival.

COO Andrea Stuart-Lehalle, Artistic Director Beth Barrett, and Executive Director Tom Mara


Reviving a Cinematic Icon
SIFF acquires the former Seattle Cinerama Theatre after its closure in 2020, bringing the beloved venue (and the chocolate popcorn) back to life as SIFF Cinema Downtown.