'Garden' gets best feature award

MAUI — A record setting 20,000-plus admissions and a burst of exposure on CNN helped give the Maui Film Festival a leg up in its bid for greater recognition by the industry as the fifth annual event unspooled here June 16-20.

Audience award for best feature went to Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” while “Woodstock Express,” a Woodstock-era concert film from Canada, was the audience favorite in the docu category.

Surfing doc “Of Wind And Waves: The Woody Brown Story” won the audience short film award. Fest bestowed a special award on “What the #$@! Do We Know,” a hybrid docu/feature starring Marlee Matlin that sold out both its screenings at the 250-seat McCoy theater and has been generating strong festival buzz.

High ticket and pass sales pushed the festival into the black before its half-way point, despite rising expenses, according to founder and director Barry Rivers. Some 65 films unspooled at five venues, including the showcase Celestial Cinema, a state-of-the-art outdoor venue with a 50-foot screen and exceptional sound. Honorees included Angela Bassett, Woody Harrelson, Bill Maher and producer Ted Hope.

Particularly well received was New Line Cinema’s “The Notebook,” which drew some 2,400 to a Saturday night screening at the Celestial Cinema. Romantic drama unspooled under star-drenched skies for a rapt crowd seated on lawn chairs and blankets.

Venue’s remarkably clear sound also made an incomparable experience of George Harrison tribute film “Concert for George” to a crowd that sang along on “Something in the Way She Moves” and clapped as if attending a live concert.

Well over 3,000 attended opening film “Two Brothers,” from Universal and director Jean-Jacques Annaud, which was also very favorably received.

Young event is short on premieres, and to the extent that it interests Hollywood, fest seems to work best as an additional word of mouth platform for specialized summer releases, along with an enticing getaway.

Hope, on hand to shepherd an opening night screening of “The Door in the Floor” and collect an award, was so late returning from a jaunt down the legendary road to Hana that he was forced to show up for his Friday night tribute wearing board shorts and flip-flops.

Among other industryites present were HBO’s Carmi Zlotnik, who took advantage of surfing lessons offered by Rivers’ sons, Tide and Kiva; publicists Heidi Schaffer and Robin Baum of PMK/HBK; and publicist Blaise Noto, a studio veteran who now runs his company from Maui.

A CNN crew was on hand, doing segments on the fest as well as Hawaii filming and culture.

“Our goal this year was to take it to the next level in terms of both attendance and awareness, and I think we’ve achieved that, due in no small part to CNN,” said Rivers.

Overall attendance was up some 15% from last year’s record of 17,500 admissions.

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