Loyal audiences drawn to hip mix of movies

Taking a page from the successful movie marketers’ handbook, the Newport Beach Film Festival knows who its audiences are and gives them what they want: It’s screening its largest lineup to date, with 446 films from 45 countries; a vibrant student showcase of 50 films; family-oriented, sports and eco-conscious film sidebars; and a packed schedule of nightly events and glittery parties for the O.C.’s highly social locals.

Launching its 10th edition Thursday night with Screen Media Films’ “Lymelife,” Newport Beach is expanding as other regional festivals downsize or even die.

“We have an audience that has a ferocious appetite for great film in a luxury destination that’s close to Hollywood: It’s a powerful combination,” says exec director Gregg Schwenk.

He contends the fest’s staying power is a result of thoughtful planning and fiscal responsibility.

“When we look back over the last 10 years, it’s been our ability to stick to our plan and build the festival rationally, taking advantage of our natural strengths,” which has kept it successful, explains Schwenk.

Although a not-for-profit organization, fest aims to stay in the black. To achieve that end, “best-in-class brands” are sought out for sponsorship, says Schwenk, who credits the backing of major long-term sponsors such as the Irvine Co., sports agent Leigh Steinberg and Absolut vodka.

A dedicated volunteer staff handles much of the workload, while the city and local businesses pitch in with fiscal support and in-kind donations.

“From a community perspective, the festival is still very much in a growth mode,” says Gary Sherwin, prexy and CEO of the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau.

Strong relationships with indie distribs have also aided the fest’s profile. “Crash” memorably preemed at the fest in 2004; Fox Searchlight’s highly anticipated “(500) Days of Summer” is 2009’s closing-night pic. “The Newport Beach Film Fest has consistently shown a strong return on investment for filmmakers and sponsors,” Schwenk notes.

To better understand its aud, the fest commissioned a study, conducted by sociology instructor Sam Gilmore of UC Irvine. Per the study: The median age of a festgoer is 34, with attendees split evenly between men and women. Most have an undergrad or advanced college degree and are frequent filmgoers.

“Our audience is a real trendsetter for film,” Schwenk says enthusiastically. Approximately 40% of attendees come from outside the Newport Beach and greater Orange County area.

Multiple events are scheduled nightly throughout the festival. Opening-night gala at Fashion Island includes a — what else? — fashion show by Bloomingdale’s, with 22 area restaurants providing signature menu items and a special perf by Cirque du Soleil. Among the venues for after-parties: Land Rover of Newport Beach’s showroom and retailer Design Within Reach.

Documentaries are well-represented (and a favorite of festgoers, per Schwenk) in the fest lineup with a new art, architecture and design series that screens features dedicated to SoCal tastemakers: Murray Grigor’s “Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner” and Eric Bricker’s “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman,” about the architectural photog.

Newport Beach’s showbiz-savvy audience also flocks to industry-related seminars and tributes. Composer Marc Shaiman’s (“Hairspray”) career will be reviewed Friday at the Island Hotel. The fest’s association with the family of longtime area resident John Wayne means another treat for fans of the Duke: a screening of a restored print of John Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” to mark the classic’s 60th anni, coupled with a panel discussion on the modern Western.

TIP SHEET

When: Thursday thru April 30

Where: Newport Beach, Calif.

Web: newportbeachfilmfest.com

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