'Whale Rider' rides wave of popularity

MAUI, Hawaii — Exceptional, imaginative outdoor screening venues and world-class parties put many filmmakers and visiting celebs on a Maui high as the island’s fourth annual film festival at Wailea unspooled here June 11-15.

Admissions were up 75% percent over last year with a total of 17,500 attendees, based on estimates made Sunday as the event prepared to wrap. Romantic comedy “Alex & Emma,” paired with “The Dancer Upstairs” in a double feature, set an opening night attendance record of 2,250. Numbers were eclipsed the following night, when surfing docu “Step Into Liquid,” paired with kung-fu comedy “Shaolin Soccer,” drew 3,010.

Both events took place at the Maui fest’s prime venue, the outdoor Celestial Cinema, where a Hawaiian hula and brief astronomy lessons preceded the features, and moviegoers watched from lawn chairs and blankets set out under the stars.

Surfing a wave of island-wide enthusiasm and merchant support, fest director Barry Rivers nonetheless caught a bad break midway through when honoree Anthony Hopkins suddenly canceled his appearance.

Oscar-winning thesp cited a family emergency in explaining the no-show. He had been slated to receive the fest’s top honor, the Silver Sword Award, last year presented to Clint Eastwood. Festival guest Adrien Brody, an Oscar-winner for “The Pianist,” was pressed into service to save the evening for ticket-holders, and received a standing ovation for his trouble. Award was presented as planned to the absent Hopkins, while Brody sat for a film clip tribute and talked about his own career.

Other scheduled tributes went off as planned for attendees Geena Davis, Rob Reiner and Greg Kinnear.

‘Whale Rider’ rides high

Hit of the festival was Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider,” which generated raves from locals and industryites alike; the short film standout was “Most,” a 29-minute drama about a bridge-tender that won best short film and best newcomers honors for filmmaker Bobby Garabedian.

Screening of round-the-world surfing doc “Step Into Liquid,” by Dana Brown, son of “The Endless Summer” helmer Bruce Brown, was also a singular experience, with boarders from around the island cheering at each appearance of a surf hero or legendary wave locale.

Fest’s program of 55 features, docs and shorts was short on world premieres — sole debuting feature was Dan Ireland’s “Passionada,” warmly received at Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s Castle Theater, despite last-minute booking — but event made up for it in hospitality and presentation showmanship.

Set in the Wailea resort area in South Maui — a longtime favorite vacation destination for the film industry — event takes full advantage of the spectacular settings, top chefs and visitor industry expertise with an array of memorable receptions and parties.

Three imaginative outdoor screening venues take similar advantage of the tropic setting. Fest’s masterstroke is its prime venue, the Celestial Cinema, with its 40-foot-wide screen, Dolby surround sound, and $20 double-feature admission price. Locals carry in lawn chairs and beach mats, while VIPs watch from cushy golf carts.

At the SandDance Cinema, silent films unspool just yards from the surf. Venue has charm but could use an upgrade in projection equipment.

By contrast, the Digital Sky Dome, under the stars on the roof of the Outrigger Marriott hotel, boasts exceptional sound and crisp imagery.

Resort’s mid-June tropical clime cooperated handsomely, offering windless, rain-free evenings, plus balmy days for the outdoor filmmaker panels held on the lawn next to a waterfall and ancient Banyan trees at the Marriott hotel.

Expanding reach

Two years ago, event was more local in outlook, with only three venues and a program half as big.

“It’s grown enormously, and it’ll be increasingly a favorite as word gets out that it’s a great film festival and a lot of fun,” said AFI fest director Christian Gaines, former programmer of the Honolulu-based Hawaii International Film Festival, held annually in September. “Barry Rivers has done a great job of building relationships with the Hollywood studios, but it’s his support from the visitor industry here that’s really going to make it.”

“I’m amazed that they’re pulling off something on this scale after only four years,” said Ireland, who co-founded and helped build the 28-year-old Seattle Intl. Film Festival. “It’s professional, and they’re really taking care of people. In a year or two people will be fighting to get their films in here.”

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