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Years ago, as a volunteer screener for the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF), I would arrive at the office of what would evolve into the premier cultural event in Orange County and pick up a gift bag filled with VHF tapes of indie and no-budget films being considered for the upcoming fest's lineup.
After those videos were viewed, rated and returned, I would pick up another bag. In later festivals, as DVD players started overtaking the consumer market, discs began being dropped into those gift bags. Later, you got a choice: all tapes, all DVDs or mixed bags. Then the VHF tapes disappeared altogether.
In recent years, as filmmakers have requested I preview their festival entries, I have been sent links that allow me to watch the films on a computer screen. As this story is being typed on one laptop, playing on another is David Esfeh's sobering documentary about student-loan debt, eduCaution, which is an entry in the 15th annual Newport Beach Film Festival that runs from Thursday, April 24 until May 1.
The format of submissions is not the only technological change the festival has rolled with since rising from the ashes of the short-lived Newport Beach International Film Festival, re-forming without International in the title in 1999 and mounting the first NBFF in April 2000. The ways "films" have been projected onto local big screens have evolved with technology as well. I put "films" in quotes because some entries in recent years have been shown without cluttering projection rooms with film cans or celluloid (despite the lovely lass on our cover).
Dennis Baker, the longtime director of the festival's short-films program, says we are fast approaching the day when "films" (there I go again) are shot with devices plugged directly into computers for post-production (editing, sound mixing, color correction, etc.) and from there plugged directly into projectors without there ever having been the cinematic equivalent of what we in the newspaper biz (R.I.P.) would call "hard copies." Welcome to Videodrome, Blondie.
This has both drastically reduced the cost of making movies and created new niche opportunities in the film industry—such as, as Baker mentions, companies that make the images stream faster and better online. Meanwhile, high technology has increasingly produced subject matter for the actual festival entries. This year, there are three titles that deal with the perils of technology and/or social media—and that's just the ones in the 10th annual Youth Film Showcase, which since 2005 has allowed filmmakers 18 and younger to screen their films, stick around for Q&As with non-paying audiences and compete for NBFF awards.
Of course, the losers in all this are the gift-bag manufacturers.
* * *
The first NBFF ran for eight days. Included in its lineup were six films that had just played at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah; the opener on the massive Edwards "Big Newport" screen was a 50th-anniversary screening of the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard. (Yeah, I'm kicking myself over having missed that, too.)
Co-founders Gregg Schwenk, the CEO and executive director, and Todd Quartararo, the director of marketing and public relations, have guided the festival all these years and certainly deserve their bows (along with a dedicated staff that is 95 percent volunteer) for having grown the event that annually presents more than 400 films from 50-plus countries. Festival audiences have taken in the U.S. premiere of Paul Haggis' eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture Crash, (500) Days of Summer, The Cove, Waitress, Layer Cake, The Illusionist, Art School Confidential, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Spellbound, Born Into Brothels and Pieces of April, among many, many significant others.
But Schwenk and Quartararo would be the first to tell you they could not have launched, maintained and expanded the festival were it not for the festival's partner, the city of Newport Beach. Not only did the City Council of 1999 get behind the festival despite the previous Newport Beach International Film Festival regime going bankrupt in its fourth year, but the city and the Visitors Bureau have also lent financial and moral support to nurture the event as a cultural centerpiece.
That has helped to bring out Hollywood heavy hitters for NBFF seminars, tributes and special screenings, including Adam Sandler, Aaron Sorkin, Haskell Wexler, Robert Wise, Elmer Bernstein, John Waters, Alan Arkin, Bruce Brown, Richard Sherman, Penelope Spheeris, pride of Corona del Mar High McG and Irvine-born Will Ferrell, who was honorary chairman of the 2006 Youth Film Showcase.
Besides all that cinematic stuff, the NBFF is known for off-the-hook opening-night, closing-night and in-between parties, which are fueled by free-flowing beer, wine and cocktails, as well as scrumptious appetizers from an endless list of area restaurants. These parties are held in either roped-off areas near movie theaters or close-by high-end restaurants, businesses and galleries. Despite these locales, I've yet to attend an NBFF party overflowing with the same 'tude that I've encountered in Hollywood and Park City.
Schwenk says each festival has presented a different challenge because each has featured different combinations of films, screens and filmmakers. "I think one thing that has gotten easier," he observes, "is studios and distributors call us instead of us necessarily calling them."
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