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.
Visit www.newportbeachfilmfest.com for theaters, show times and tickets.
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.
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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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Opening-night films have always been shown at Big Newport, billed as the largest moviehouse screen west of the Mississippi. Big Newps, the adjacent Newport Center cinemas and the nearby Island Cinemas of Fashion Island have always screened NBFF fare.
Longtime venues include the historic Lido Regency Theater in Lido Village, the Orange County Museum of Art (which also partners with the festival for the year-round Cinema Orange program of art, architecture and design documentaries) and Sage Hill High School on Newport Coast Road, which is where most Collegiate Showcase and Youth Film Showcase films are run.
Since 2011, Starlight Cinemas at the Triangle in Costa Mesa has done heavy NBFF lifting. This year, they've added what has long served as a second home to many Orange County lovers of foreign and independent cinema, the much larger, dual-screen Regency South Coast Village in Santa Ana. (Fret not, Newporters, it's the South Coast Plaza-adjacent area of Santa Ana, not the SanTana where your housekeepers reside.)
"We have definitely increased our footprint," Schwenk says.
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This year's festival opens at Big Newport at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 24 with the world premiere of Lovesick, a romantic comedy starring Matt LeBlanc (Friends, Episodes) as a fellow named Charlie Darby, whose brain chemistry causes him to become clinically insane whenever he falls for a woman. Along comes former dancer Molly Kingston (Ali Larter), who Charlie can't resist, forcing him to confront his psychosis with the help of a friend (Adam Rodriquez) and a wacky neighbor (Chevy Chase).
Director Luke Matheny has helmed five episodes of IFC's Maron starring standup/podcaster Marc Maron, and the filmmaker snagged an Academy Award for his quirky comedy short God of Love, which rolled at the one-and-done Anaheim International Film Festival in October 2010 on the way to the Oscars. Lovesick screenwriter and executive producer Dean Young wrote for Mad About You, The Drew Carey Show and King of the Hill, with the latter earning him an Emmy nomination. One of Lovesick's producers is Josh Goldstein, who grew up in Costa Mesa.
The closing-night picture, Chef, rolls at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 1 at the Lido, where it will be making its West Coast premiere after having played at the most recent South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. The small-scale dramedy stars and was written, directed and produced by Jon Favreau, an A-list Hollywood director (Elf and the Iron Man franchise) returning to his indie roots (1996's Swingers) and the NBFF (2004's The Big Empty).
The title character in Chef loses his restaurant job and starts a food truck to reclaim his culinary glory. At the same time, he tries to piece together his estranged family. Check out this indie cast: Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Sofía Vergara, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Bobby Cannavale and Oliver Platt.
"Two little comedies are a great way to bookend the festival," Schwenk says.
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THE WORLD PREMIERES
Sandwiched between the opener and closer are more than 400 films, including, at last count, 138 feature-length movies, 62 of which were documentaries. (Negotiations with studios, distributors and filmmakers were ongoing as this story went to press.)
Among the world premieres at NBFF 2014 are two documentaries by Brent Deal, a San Clemente director of commercials who long dreamed of making a feature-length film. He plunged into the stand-up paddling (SUP) world with his first two full-length docs, H2indO and Decade of Dominance, which made their world premieres at NBFF 2012. He's back this year with H2mexicO, which puts some of the first film's SUP stars on a "surfing yacht" in waters south of the border, and XOXO, which follows five female athletes from different sports to Maui, where they give something back to local girls.
Other world premieres include writer/director Keith Palmer's Swelter, a drama with Alfred Molina, Josh Henderson and Jean-Claude Van Damme about robbers of a Las Vegas casino breaking out of prison after 10 years to chase the lone member of the gang who escaped capture . . . with $10 million; Craig and Brent Renaud's documentary Earthquake, which follows the lives of two children who were found barely alive after three days beneath the rubble from the Haiti earthquake; Tierre De Patagones (Land of Patagonias), which has Julián and Joaquín Azulay, the surfing/filmmaking brothers from last year's NBFF entry Gauchos del mar—Surfeando el pacifico americano, confining their cinematic journey to Argentina's coastline; Jim Becket's documentary Sons of Africa, which follows the now-adult sons of ruthless African leaders Idi Amin of Uganda and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania up Mount Kilimanjaro for a climb of peace and reconciliation; Sandy Smolan's The Human Face of Big Data, a documentary about online access, data crunching and thorny NSA issues; and Alvaro Diaz Lorenzo's Spanish dramedy La Despedida (The Goodbye), which has three friends honoring the deathbed wish of a dear companion to take the ashes on a road trip through Europe.
Also world premiering are Don't Quit: The Joe Roth Story, Bob Rider and Phil Schaaf's documentary (narrated by Keith Jackson) about a Cal quarterback who led the Golden Bears in 1976 while keeping secret the melanoma that was eating him alive; Give Us This Day, a football-related doc from Adam Stern, D.L. Stern and Milton Boyd that follows one of the nation's top high school programs struggling through its toughest season ever; Grant Knisely's documentary Untouchable: The Children of God, which takes us inside the brothels of India, where young girls perish every day; The Milky Way, Jon Fitzgerald's documentary on a lactation consultant who sets about changing American attitudes about breast-feeding; Regina Russell's documentary that's part of the NBFF Music Series, Well Now You're Here, There's No Way Back, which follows Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali introducing his daughter to the band he left behind with singer Kevin DuBrow's death in 2007; Steven Loring's documentary The Age of Love, which looks at singles in their 70s through 90s going to a speed-dating gathering; and what must be a hot ticket because three screenings have been scheduled as this goes to press, David Baker's doc American Wine Story, about a dozen entrepreneurial winemakers from around the country.
Wait, there is one more, and it is really special. Remember Fuck: The Fuckumentary, a documentary about the dreaded F-word that played at NBFF 2006? Remember the aforementioned Jon Favreau-starring The Big Empty? The director of both of those, Steve Anderson, is back with The Last Lonely Place, a feature-length, modern noir flick about a despondent LA cab driver whose last fare of his last night on the job leads to disaster. The king of noir films was Humphrey Bogart, who has a Newport Beach connection from he and wife Lauren Bacall having sailed their boat The Santana out of Newport Harbor in the 1940s and '50s. Well, get this: The Bogart family has blessed The Last Lonely Place and plans are afoot to bring Bacall and her son Stephen Bogart to the Lido (what better place?) for the screening. Besides the foray into noir, why would the Bogart family warm up to Anderson? Perhaps it has to do with the name of his company: Santana Films.
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With apologies to the movies noted before, world premieres can be hit-and-miss. For every decent one, there are many, many more duds (I'm looking at you, 2012's Shanghai Calling). I'd wager the odds are much better hitting the Spotlight Films, which are films that have been popular in designated countries or geographical regions (such as Ireland, France or the Pacific Rim) or at recent film festivals (such as Toronto, Sundance and SXSW).
"We have dramatically expanded our Friday- and Saturday-night [screenings]," Schwenk says. "There will be too many high-profile films."
This is because past festival audiences have let the programmers know through tickets sales that the Spotlights are the most popular attractions. The need to feed the frenzy is reflected in the following Spotlight selections.
April 25's Featured Spotlights: Charlie McDowell's smart The One I Love has a couple (Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss and The League's Mark Duplass) trying to save a marriage with a romantic getaway to a vacation house, where they find something unexpected; Ted Danson co-stars. Amma Asante's Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral who helps shape history and the eventual end to slavery in England; the stellar cast includes Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson. Stuart Murdoch's Scottish pop-rock musical God Help The Girl has the title character (the girl, not God) dealing with emotional problems in a Glasgow hospital, where she starts writing songs and experiencing the healing power of music that will lead to a rebirth. Writer/director Amit Gupta's Jadoo, which has two other screenings scheduled during this NBFF, is about two bickering brothers who split the family cookbook—one receiving appetizers, the other entrées—and are now being asked by the daughter of one master of Indian cuisine to come together and cook for her upcoming wedding. Jocelyn Towne and The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg's We'll Never Have Paris has—shall we say nebbish?—Helberg poised to propose to his girlfriend when his tall, hot, blond co-worker confesses her love to him. He goes for the blonde, the girlfriend goes to Paris to find herself, he then regrets his decision and hops the pond to win back the g.f., and the blonde goes to Frogland herself to win him back. Jay Karas' crowd-pleasing comedy Break Point is about a tennis player (Jeremy Sisto) getting dropped by his doubles partner and, having burned all his bridges in the pros, is forced to convince his childhood partner and estranged brother Darren to join him on the court; the cast includes Amy Smart, JK Simmons, Adam Devine and Chris Parnell.
April 26's Featured Spotlights: Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Call Me Fitz fame directs Cas & Dylan, which also has two other festival screenings, features Richard Dreyfuss as a terminally ill physician who decides to end it all before reluctantly agreeing to give a 22-year-old social misfit a short ride home that turns into a long adventure. James Gray's The Immigrant, set in the early 1920s, is about a Catholic Polish immigrant to the U.S. (Marion Cotillard) being forced into prostitution by a brutal man (Joaquin Phoenix, a frequent Gray collaborator) before Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger) comes to her rescue. Christian Camargo's surreal Days and Nights, which is inspired by Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, has a 1980s movie star bringing her paramour to a lakeside estate in rural New England to visit her family on Memorial Day weekend, when all hell breaks loose; Katie Holmes, Jean Reno, Allison Janney and William Hurt star. Michael Damian's romantic comedy Love By Design has a Romanian fashionista losing her job in New York City after clashing with her über-diva boss (Jane Seymour) and returning to her family farm in Transylvania, where she is inspired by a charming Brit to launch a clothing line in time for the NYC Fashion Week. Writers/directors Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky's Growing Up and Other Lies has Mr. The O.C. himself, Adam Brody, convincing his best buddies to help retrace their greatest adventure together—walking down the entire length of Manhattan—before he returns to Ohio upon having chucked the struggling artist life; the cast includes Wyatt Cenac, Amber Tamblyn and Lauren Miller. Comedy-nerd "it" girl Jenny Slate heads a cast that also includes Tamblyn's hubby, David Cross, in writer/director Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child, about a twentysomething comic getting dumped, losing her job and finding herself preggers just in time for Valentine's Day. Two NBFF programmers confess it was the funniest film they saw at this year's Sundance.
Irish Spotlight on April 27: Lance Daly's Life's a Breeze is about a Dublin woman whose family surprises her with a home makeover that has her thrilled until she discovers they tossed her old mattress where she hid her life savings. When a physical search comes up empty, an ill-advised public appeal on the radio leads to a citywide hunt for the lost money.
Pacific Rim Spotlight on April 28: You know how Hollywood and, in particular, the makers of spaghetti westerns in Italy took old Japanese samurai movie stories and set them in the Old West? With Yurusarezaru mono (Unforgiven), Sang-il Lee turns the practice on its head, presenting a shot-for-shot remake of Clint Eastwood's Oscar winner Unforgiven—with samurais; Ken Watanabe stars. Flora Lau's Bends explores the classes through a prosperous housewife and her chauffeur who begin an unlikely friendship amid the pressures of Hong Kong society and the city's increasingly complex relationship with mainland China. South Korea's blockbuster Cold Eyes, which has a second NBFF showing scheduled, has co-directors Ui-seok Cho and Byung-seo Kim remaking the 2007 thriller out of Hong Kong Eye In the Sky. About the police force's Special Crime Unit battling a criminal mastermind, Cold Eyes is the best picture all NBFF programmers say they have seen this year. Mark Lamprell's Goddess has a singer taking a break to raise her 3-year-old twin boys on the southernmost tip of Australia while her husband works on the water to save the whales. Battling loneliness in her kitchen, she starts singing her "sink songs" into her computer, unknowingly becoming an Internet sensation.
European Spotlights on April 29: Per Fly's Waltz for Monica (Monica Z) was a big hit in Sweden, telling the story of real 1960s jazz singer and entertainer Monica Zetterlund. She escaped her small hometown in the Land of Meatballs, tried but failed to make it big in New York City, then returned to find fame and love in her homeland and thought it was quite the bumpy ride. Maria Sole Tognazzi's A Five Star Life has an Italian luxury-hotel inspector loving her work that takes her to wonderful settings around the world and the single life—until she meets a woman who makes her feel all tingly. Writer/director Sylvain Chomet's quirky little charmer Attila Marcel is about a mute in his thirties who lives in a Parisian apartment with his aristocrat aunts who dream of seeing him become a virtuoso pianist. He breaks out of his sheltered life when he meets an eccentric woman on the fourth floor.
April 30's Latino Spotlights: From Brazil comes Bernard Attal's A Coleção Invisível (The Invisible Collection), about a hard-partying young man who has his perspective on life changed after a personal tragedy leads to him taking over his family's antique store. Marcela Said's El verano de los peces voladores (The Summer of Flying Fish) has it becoming increasingly clear to a young girl on vacation in the south of Chile that she must stop her uncle's mad campaign to kill all the carp in his artificial lagoon. Claudia Sainte-Luce's Los insolitos peces gato (The Amazing Catfish) features a twentysomething woman in a Mexican hospital for appendicitis bonding with an ailing matriarch. Upon their release, the mother brings the younger woman into her quirky, bustling home, where she is quickly welcomed and accepted as a new part of the household—perhaps too accepted.
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Our hard-copy issue has an accompanying hard-copy, pull-out guide that has all the titles, and newportbeachfilmfest.com includes all the synopses and online video trailers for many entries, retrospectives and music videos.
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Opening-night tickets are a steep $175 because it includes the film and gala afterward at Fashion Island. It's $125 for the gala only, which—sorry, kids—is 21-and-over because of that free-flowing booze mentioned earlier. Closing-night tickets will set you back $75 for the movie and party, which is also 21-and-over because of you-know-what.
The vast majority of films and shorts programs are a more wallet-friendly $12 for seniors and students and $14 for everyone else. Spotlight films are a few dollars more (or a few $10 more if you want to attend the 21-and-over parties associated with them).
There are also many free screenings, seminars and other events sprinkled throughout the festival. Roll 'em—oh, wait . . .