Reeling In the Years
A diary digesting the decade-old Newport Beach Film Festival—encapsulated!

Ten years. My, how time flies. I remember when the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) was a pup bouncing on my knee, gnawing on a teething ring, vomiting warm breast milk down my back after I’d turned it to my shoulder to burp it. Now it’s one of the most highly anticipated cultural events going.

That’s amazing when you consider it rose from the ashes of the Newport Beach International Film Festival, which went belly-up in 1999 after a four-year run, leaving unpaid vendors, pissed-off volunteers and much ill will in its wake. But a group of local educators, business leaders and movie buffs believed a seaside festival—à la Cannes—was viable in Hollywood’s back yard.

Led by founders Gregg Schwenk, an investment banker and lifelong Newport Beach resident, and San Diego marketing man Todd Quartararo, a new entity was created, “international” was dropped from the name (but not the global programming), and a juried competition to honor film excellence was begun. A team of mostly volunteers, working out of donated offices across from John Wayne Airport, hit established festivals such as Sundance, Toronto and Palm Springs and introduced themselves to filmmakers, lobbying to get them to bring their movies here. It all clicked.

Like a hackneyed flashback scene, we dissolve back to the beginning to present this epic production at 10. Stop touching that, NBFF! Do you want to go blind?

 

2000
Newport Beach super-agent/movie lover/Jerry Maguire inspiration Leigh Steinberg donated $50,000, the city chipped in $7,000, and the goal of raising $200,000 in start-up money was achieved. But NBFF needs $30,000 more for theater rentals because stingy Old Man Edwards (God rest his soul) will not donate his seats. The city picks up the tab, and the world premiere of a remastered print of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard opens the festival on the ginormous, 40-foot-by-80-foot “Big Newport” screen. Standouts screening later in the eight-day run include the documentaries Americanos, which challenges the myth of a monolithic Hispanic culture, and Long Night’s Journey Into Day, which focuses on South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission cases such as that of murdered exchange student Amy Biehl of Newport Beach. About 15,000 people show for 45 features and 100 shorts. NBFF breaks even.

 

2001
Keeping with the opening-night tribute to and screening of George Roy Hill’s 1973 Depression-era, con-man caper The Sting, antique cars drop celebrities off on the NBFF red carpet. Sally Kirkland, Eileen Brennan and Harold Gould are among Sting cast members who attend a swanky party Lucy and Leigh Steinberg host at the Newport Beach Marriott. More than 17,000 filmgoers attend over eight crazy days, but Marjoe Aguiling is off getting his eyes transplanted. The festival programmer and his team of volunteer “VCR jockeys” watched about 500 feature films and shorts before settling on 50 features and 100 shorts for audience consumption.

 

2002
Like pink flamingos stuck into a Linda Isle front lawn, plopping John Waters, members of his 1981 Polyester cast and Odorama cards in tony Newport Beach proves the NBFF has a (Cecil B.) demented side. When the Weekly asks Waters if he has ever been to Orange County, he replies, “I don’t think so, but I have a friend from Huntington Beach I was thrown out of college with. Isn’t Huntington Beach near there? He was a surfer, and if you were into that, it seemed like the best place in the world to live. Actually, most of the surfers I’ve known are criminals.” “An Evening of John Waters” at the Hard Rock Café is interrupted by a drunken heckler. It’s the Weekly writer covering the event. Over nine days, 73 features and 110 shorts from 27 countries flash on NBFF screens. Attendance (19,500) falls 500 bodies short of the goal organizers set, but the event makes $125,000.

 

2003
Opening NBFF is the West Coast premiere of Miranda, about a slippery con woman played by Christina Ricci, and my fondness for the film in my Big Newport seat evaporates quickly when the indie darling fails to show at the post-party. Fuck Miranda! Leif Garrett does not blow off the Hard Rock Café party after the tribute screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders because the former teen heartthrob’s band F8 are playing it. Greg MacGillivray, the Newport Beach native and co-founder of the Laguna Beach-based MacGillivray Freeman Films that produces large-format IMAX movies, is honored. More than 300 films from more than 45 countries screen over eight days, and NBFF breaks even.

 

2004
The TV show The O.C., which debuted the previous August and is set in Newport Beach (though shot in LA), raises the festival’s Q rating, especially in Hollywood. Parked in front of the historic Lido Theatre is a white ambulance with Ghostbusters logos taped to the doors, and standing in the long line winding up to the box office are three guys in jump suits with packs strapped to their backs and zapper guns in their hands. Heat ’em up! The occasion is a tribute to Laszlo Kovacs, the cinematographer for Ivan Reitman’s 1984 slimy, sci-fi comedy being screened. He tells us what a pussy Bill Murray was when it came to getting slimed. At the closing-night awards ceremony, Steve Anderson wins Outstanding Achievement By a First-Time Filmmaker for his indie feature debut, The Big Empty. Attendance hits 25,500.

 

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.

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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