On July 6, Deadline announced the forthcoming film Deltopia, which follows a group of Southern California teenagers over the course of 24 hours as they travel to Santa Barbara to attend “the biggest party of their lives.” The project, which boasts executive producer Olivia Newton-John and stars Luna Blaise, Madison Pettis, Charlie Gillespie, Will Peltz and Greer Grammer, is yet another coming-of-age narrative within the far-from-untapped genre of high schoolers attending college parties. But unlike other movies that share the premise of a wild, no-holds-barred bash, Deltopia is rooted in reality, and is raising alarm within the community it portrays.
The titular Deltopia is an annual, unsanctioned street party thrown every April in Isla Vista, a 1.9-square mile beach town that borders the University of California, Santa Barbara. The legendary shindig attracts people from up and down the California coast, causing a large influx of out-of-towners who run amok through the streets like a migrating flock of drunken geese. But in 2014, the festive atmosphere took a dark turn when a law enforcement officer was struck on the head with a backpack containing bottles of alcohol, allegedly by an underage tourist. As the scene erupted into chaos, attendees began “[throwing] objects at police, burning mattresses, ripping up stop signs, destroying car windshields and damaging police vehicles,” according to eyewitnesses. Soon came the onslaught of tear gas, rubber bullets, and police in riot gear.
While the truth behind the violent scene may never be fully known, it’s widely understood that the unrest was largely caused by out-of-towners. “These are people who are having fun at the expense of the local community,” says Daniel Slovinsky, who was reporting that night for the Daily Nexus. Out of the approximately 15,000 attendees that year, over 100 arrests and 44 hospitalizations were reported. Slovinsky, who likens the scene to that of a war zone, recalls hordes of bystanders sheltering in strangers’ houses and yards along Del Playa Drive (the party’s main drag) to avoid being shot and gassed. “One guy volunteered to step out and talk to the police and see if we could walk out to go home. Before he even got there, they just started shooting at him with rubber bullets,” Slovinsky recalls. “He ran back inside and had these giant welts all over his legs. He was wearing shorts; you could see he got hit directly on his skin. It was all sorts of different colors that human skin is not supposed to be.”
While the Deltopia film’s cast continues to “party like it’s 2014” from their insulated Malibu set, Isla Vistans worry that the production will have pernicious implications for the area’s future. In an open letter addressed to the film’s writer-directors Michael Easterling and Jaala Ruffman, as well as producers and cast, the Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD) board and over 800 community members voiced that as a direct result of Deltopia 2014, “our community’s sense of safety and security was lost.” The signatories conveyed their anxiety that the movie Deltopia would have a regressive effect on the already strained relationship between law enforcement and the community’s nearly 28,000 residents—approximately 85 percent of whom are under the age of 24. (Easterling, Ruffman and the production companies behind Deltopia did not respond to requests for comment.)
Policing in the town has reflected the racial biases seen across the country. Residents of Isla Vista paid the price in over-policing in the years following the Deltopia riots—especially people of color. Ivan Gonzalez, a UCSB alum, was written up on a Minor in Possession charge after throwing an empty cup into a trash can on private property as he was leaving a party. Gonzalez, who is Zapotec, said that officers grabbed him by both wrists and pushed him against a wall. They accused him of drinking tequila—which he was not—and remarked, “Just what I thought.” He was handcuffed and forced to sit on the ground while being written up. “I was really shaken up and humiliated and fearful, and really sad, honestly. I cried because I forgot how I get treated in the United States,” he recalls. “It’s very much a reality, especially in places that feel like they are really over-policed.”
Gonzalez isn’t alone. According to a report on alternatives to policing presented by the Isla Vista Community Services District, the town’s governing body, racial profiling by law enforcement runs rampant in Isla Vista. “While Black residents make up just 3.3 percent of the population, they are arrested and cited at a rate more than double their population (6.8 percent in 2019),” the report finds. Members of the IVCSD have continually lobbied for events like Deltopia to see a decrease in policing and an increase in the use of non-sworn officers, peer-to-peer education, and community organizing, but they worry that the reputation brought on by the film will scare Santa Barbara County and the university into backing traditional policing.
“Bringing a police state presence to the community doesn’t make our residents feel safe. In many ways I think it makes our community feel infantilized,” IVCSD President Spencer Brandt says. Gonzalez concurs: “I think any chance they get to really bring out all the little gadgets and gear that they don’t normally get to use, they’ll take it. And unfortunately, we have the short end of that stick.”
Following the Deadline announcement, word of the Deltopia movie spread like wildfire throughout the UCSB community. Many students and alumni were frustrated by the portrayal of high schoolers attending an event by and for college students. “The fact the Deltopia movie is going to be about recently graduated high schoolers like they’d even make it past the front walkway into someone’s yard,” one user tweeted. Others worried that the movie would cause a resurgence in out-of-towners seeking to restore Isla Vista’s party-town glory.
One alumnus wrote, “the only way this movie will be in any way an accurate representation of Deltopia is if someone yells at the main characters ‘out of towners go home.’” Brandt echoes these sentiments: “The message of the movie is a narrative about people from out of town, people who are under the age, who are in high school, coming to Isla Vista for Deltopia. Those groups of people are both groups that we tried really hard to discourage from coming,” he says. The IVCSD is not alone in that effort. The university spends between $30,000-$41,000 annually in advertisements aimed at dissuading non-residents and high schoolers from attending.
Catherine Flaherty, vice president of the IVCSD and a rising UCSB senior, worries that Deltopia could rapidly undo the years of progress made since 2014. “Not only [the IVCSD], but the greater community was really disappointed. I think that this one movie could have the power possibly to unravel over seven years of work to make our communities safer,” she says.
Deltopia is not the first time that Isla Vista has been the subject of a sensationalized, unflattering portrayal. The 2017 horror film Del Playa was inspired by the Isla Vista Massacre, which occurred less than two months after the Deltopia riots, and left six students dead. Brandt, who was a UCSB student from 2015-2019, considers those two events the catalyst for the creation of the IVCSD. “Both the riot and the massacre were integral to really waking up the community and saying, ‘We need to come together and try and solve some of these long-standing problems in Isla Vista,’” he says. “A lot of folks that remember Del Playa immediately identified Deltopia as being in the same vein, as taking advantage and not accurately portraying what actually happened here in a way that just felt really exploitative and gross.”
Both Brandt and Flaherty are concerned that the film will tarnish Isla Vista’s reputation, and only serve to paint the town as lawless and its residents as degenerates. “It does not represent who we are,” Flaherty says. She also expressed disappointment that there was ostensibly no effort from the production to include Isla Vistans in their own mythology, and wishes that people would know that “Isla Vista is a vibrant, diverse, connected, and engaged community.”
Talk of the community’s disapproval and rumors of the impending letter surely made its way to the production, because Brandt and Flaherty soon found themselves blocked by the film’s official Instagram page, in what they deem some kind of preemptive strike. Flaherty, who did not interact with the account in any way prior to being blocked, was annoyed that the people behind the film were seemingly uninterested in conversing with community members. “I would have loved to speak with them and share our concerns. And I would hope that they would want to listen, because this is the community that they’re writing about and that they’re portraying through their movie,” she says.
Public officials weren’t the only ones being iced out though. Owen Skinner, a second-year UCSB student, also found himself on the receiving end of the block button. Skinner privately messaged the film, criticizing their lack of community involvement, and accused them of deleting the dissenting comments left on their Instagram post. “A day or two later I go and check their Instagram to see if anything is posted and [was blocked],” he says.
Skinner maintains that the Deltopia account is “within their right to make it however they want to be perceived.” Yet, there is a notable irony that a production with no apparent regard for the community it depicts is so concerned with its own outward-facing image.