Newport Beach Film Fest Opens Tonight, But You Never Would Have Thunk It Days Ago

The week-long 2012 Newport Beach Film Festival opens tonight with a Big Newport presentation of Jewtopia, one of 16 world premieres at the 13th annual event, followed by the boozy, schmoozy opening night gala at Fashion Island.

However, to be in the busy festival offices across from John Wayne Airport a couple weeks ago, you never would have imagined they could pull it off.

Jewtopia, which is based on a popular Off-Broadway play that was based on a book, makes its world premiere tonight.
Jewtopia, which is based on a popular Off-Broadway play that was based on a book, makes its world premiere tonight.

As phones rang, volunteers buzzed and the occasional PG-13 expletive was screamed into computer monitors, Leslie Feibleman, the festival's longtime Community, Special Programs and Action Sports Film Programming director, led a reporter into a war room to go over the then-nearly confirmed lineup.

Erik Forssell, the programming director who splits his time making movies when he isn't teaching film classes at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, dealt with titles falling out of the festival at the last minute, just as new ones fortuitously dropped in to replace them.

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Co-founder Todd Quartararo, the only marketing and public relations chief the festival has ever known, unspooled a roll of bus shelter advertisements that he was about to personally hang in various movie theaters across Orange County.

Hey, the formula's worked for 13 years, why change now?

Gregg Schwenk, ready for his close-up.
Gregg Schwenk, ready for his close-up.

"We're proud of what we've achieved in 13 years," says Gregg Schwenk, the fest's other co-founder, executive director and CEO, from across a cluttered desk. "We have built a reputation with filmmakers and studios. We have shown we have the ability to deliver, and that has given us greater access to films."

This year, those films include the Sundance hit Robot and Frank, the Aussie heist flick Swerve and Joe Berlinger's most-excellent documentary Under African Skies, which explores the making and revisiting of Paul Simon's pop masterpiece Graceland.

Other features and feature-length documentaries making their world premieres at Newport are: Magic Camp, Beat Down, Awaken, Songs for Amy, Behind the Orange Curtain, Eyes of Thailand, Blue Planet: Sounds, Design & Thinking, Decade of Dominance, H2indO, Hicks on Sticks, Man and Machine, Crusty 16--Outback Attack, Kingdom Come and the May 3 closing night film Shanghai Calling

"Filmmakers and studio people have been to a number of festivals where everyone has over-promised and under-delivered," Schwenk mentions. "We always hear [about NBFF] that was the best screening they have been to by far."

The solid rep helps explain Feibleman's quick answer when asked what's different now than it was 13 years ago: "It's easier to get films."

And when there's better access, "the quality of films is better," adds Amanda Salazar, the associate director of programming sitting next to Feibleman.

Quartararo calls it the best lineup so far in a way that make you believe he's not just blowing smoke up your bunghole, as is the wont of an owner of a marketing and public relations firm (Quartararo & Associates of San Diego).

Feibleman tosses out something else that is different now than it was 13 years ago.

"Thanks to the rise of social media," she says, "we have a new audience every year."

Technological changes are evident in the way the festival receives submissions. Back in 2000, all the screeners were videotapes. Later, it was a mix of DVDs and videos. The videos eventually faded away in favor of DVDs and Blu-rays. Fast forward to 2012--actually 2011, after the last NBFF ended--and the festival has received a substantial number of digital submissions or links to password protected online files that allow programmers and volunteer screeners to watch films on their laptops.

Likewise, modern theaters, including the new ones at the festival hub at Fashion Island, are equipped to project films from discs, computer files or even old-fashioned reels. Independent filmmakers with no budget nor room left on their credit cards love this because it saves costs associated with film processing or making DVDs and Blu-rays.

But this year's NBFF is also parlaying digital content into an "online festival" that will allow people around the world to share the experience near Corona del Mar's glistening shores.

Meanwhile, tor those who prefer sitting with strangers in the dark, the 2012 run includes a "new" old venue, the restored Port Theatre. Because there are now fewer (but more cushy) seats in the remodeled Fashion Island theater, and the nearby Big Newport is only available for opening night and assorted one-off special screenings, the festival will once again rely on the Starlight Triangle Square Cinemas, the Costa Mesa venue that pinch hit for Island Cinemas last year.

"We started with one screen at the Lido," Schwenk recalls of the historic Via Lido movie palace that will once again screen festival films. "Now we're up to 13-14 screens across Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. We'd love to take over all of Fashion Island and use Big Newport all the time, but that won't work out according to the powers that be. So, we need Triangle Square."

Before the Starlight Cinemas solution came about in 2011, panic momentarily overcame Schwenk, Quartararo and their staff because the city of Newport Beach partly funds the festival--and Triangle Square is across the Newport Beach border. That's not an issue in 2012, according to Schwenk.

"The city still sees we're using Newport Beach hotels, we're filling Newport Beach restaurants, critical screenings are still held in Newport Beach," he says. "Filmmakers still enjoy the city's amenities and everything the town has to offer."

Another world premiere, Shanghai Calling, bookends the Newport festival May 3.
Another world premiere, Shanghai Calling, bookends the Newport festival May 3.

Other venues this year include the Newport Beach Public Library, Orange County Museum of Art, the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center and Sage Hill High School, home of a collegiate showcase featuring the films of young directors from nine campuses, including USC, UCLA, Chapman, Loyola, OCC and Saddleback.

"Newport is very committed to working with young filmmakers," says Schwenk, noting it's the eighth year of the youth competition.

Dennis Baker, who organizes the youth competition, says one invite-only event this year will put young filmmakers on a harbor cruise with professional moviemakers.

"It will be a one-on-one ratio of students and working filmmakers," Baker vows. "We want to make sure they interact so it's not students on one side and filmmakers on the other."

Both wind up getting something out of the experience, he notes: "The filmmakers love the young people's enthusiasm, and the youths like getting that dose of reality."

Baker's official job is directing the shorts programs, and like the features and documentaries, he sees the quality rising each year.

"We are going to have to turn away a lot of movies," he says. "It's very competitive this year. There will be 30-40 movies we'll turn away that we would be proud to show, we just don't have the screen time."

After Shanghai Calling rolls at the Lido May 3, the closing-night party returns to the plaza surrounding the theater, after last year being held on a street and in shops a block away. Because the final night's Lido screening always sells out, the festival has added more quality films at other theaters, so partygoers will still have something worthy to screen before getting their Absolut on.

Days before opening night, Schwenk was under no illusion that his staff and the remaining hairs they had yet to pull out of their heads are along in making the cinextravaganza a success, pointing out that 60,000 volunteer hours went into last year's run. But it's not all about them either, it's the movie fans, according to the CEO. And as long as the quality is sustained, they will come.

"The festival draws many viewers with flexible schedules, including housewives, physicians and waiters," Schwenk says. "People will play hookey for a good film."

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