2005
The festival sells 31,000 tickets in a week. After scouts see it at Toronto, a little-known LA drama oozing with racial tensions opens the festival, making its U.S. premiere on the Big Newport screen. Crash’s producers Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle, who also star in the picture, are no-shows at the post-party in the Bloomingdales courtyard at Fashion Island, where they are expected. However, writer/director Paul Haggis is not only there, but he’s also two feet from my face when bright lights and a camera ambush us. His impromptu stage happens to be next to the free vodka line I’m standing in. Standouts among the 350 films include Layer Cake, The Breakup Artist and closer Mad Hot Ballroom. More than 31,000 filmgoers attend, as does hometown boy Will Ferrell, honorary chairman of the youth program.

2006
Eleven months after the ’05 NBFF closed, Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also split the nation’s critics, who either love it or really, really hate it. But NBFF having hosted its premiere causes Hollywood to start calling Newport Beach about showing pictures there instead of the other way around. Opening things up is the West Coast premiere of Joshua Stern’s Neverwas, which stars Aaron Eckhart, Ian McKellen, Brittany Murphy, Nick Nolte, William Hurt and Jessica Lange—none of whom darken NBFF’s red carpet. Instead, we get TV producer Aaron Spelling’s son Randy and Rod Stewart’s son Sean. The Big Empty director Anderson returns with a very different film: the documentary Fuck. Over the 10-day run, 350 films from more than 40 countries are shown to 36,500 attendees. Fuckin’ amazing.

2007
Steinberg feels so cocky opening night that he boldly declares, “One day, this festival is going to be bigger than Sundance and Cannes!” Agents—always overselling. But the NBFF now operates with a budget of $300,000 to $400,000 in cash and $2 million in donations from sponsors hawking soda, vodka, coffee, food and hotel rooms. To tie in with the citywide John Wayne Centennial Celebration, several flicks are shown starring the screen legend and American icon who called Newport Beach home. Adam Sandler attends a screening of his newphew’s short. Darth Vader and stormtroopers converge on the Lido, where a doc on Star Wars’ fans is shown. The 400 films shown over 11 days draw 41,000 patrons, and the festival makes a whopping $12,000 profit.

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2008
Instead of catering to the Hollywood buzz saw for the opener, NBFF returns to its tiny indie roots with Craig Saavedra’s Sherman’s Way. And for the first time, it expands beyond city borders, screening Greg MacGillivray’s Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk in 3-D at the Irvine Spectrum IMAX. The multi-award winner is Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, which is based on Anne Michaels’ novel about a man haunted by childhood experiences during World War II. Composer Richard Sherman and Walt’s nephew Roy Disney make appearances, and Gossip Girl Blake Lively wins breakout performance honors for Elvis and Annabelle. Attendance hits 42,000 over eight days, in which 360 films from 40 countries screen. The fest breaks even in a tough financial year.

2009
The economy has spurred more free events during the April 23 to April 30 run at various locations. Opening will be Derick Martini’s Lymelife, with Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessy and Rory Culkin. A gala will follow in the Bloomingdales courtyard featuring a fashion show, chow, cocktails and a Cirque du Soleil performance. Among the 400 films from 45 countries set to screen over eight days are: Carlos Cuarón’s Rudo y Cursi, which reteams Y Tu Mamá También’s Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna; pride of San Clemente Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, starring Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo; and Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

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