Evolving mix of demos with specialty pic savvy make for buoyant fest base

Orange County moviegoers aren’t as square as their L.A. neighbors might think. A preferred locale for studio test screenings, owing to its vast suburban population, the O.C. boasts 26 arthouse screens for an audience with diverse tastes, ranging from devotees of foreign and indie fare to young fanboy types who crave action/sports films.

Programmers at the Newport Beach Film Festival, now unspooling for its 12th run, must take all of these varied tastes into consideration when selecting the 145 features screening through May 5.

“Our audience has an appetite for film that is very diverse,” says NBFF exec director Gregg Schwenk. “They enjoy a broad spectrum of work, from opening night’s comedy ‘East Fifth Bliss’ to specialized documentaries.”

That diversity of programming reveals fresh tears in the proverbial Orange Curtain. No longer strictly white-bread and conservative, the O.C.’s lively film culture reflects the county’s young, changing and multi-ethnic citizenry. Further polishing film tastes: the O.C.’s sizable community of film/TV production pros, boosted by an active film commission, a well-regarded film school at Chapman U. along and UC Irvine’s lauded creative writing program.

Richard Stein, executive director of area non-profit Arts Orange County, finds there is broad-based support for the arts because of the numerous creative industries located in the region, from digital arts companies such as Blizzard Entertainment (“World of Warcraft’s” creators, headquartered in Irvine) to action sportswear makers such as Hurley and Volcom. “There are many companies active in creative endeavors, which has created quite a harmonic convergence in the O.C.,” Stein says.

Senior festival programmer Leslie Feibleman says the local audience is receptive to highbrow fare, powerful dramas and docs, which tackle bleak subjects. “I think part of our goal is to challenge the audience,” says Feibleman, citing Don Hahn’s “Hand Held,” a chronicle of the pediatric AIDS epidemic in Romanian orphanages, as a film that programmers did not shy away from.

The NBFF also engages its audience year-round via the Orange County Film Society’s screening series and synergistic cross-promotions with cultural institutions such as the Orange County Museum of Art, home to an annual summer showcase of animated shorts.

2010′s fest attracted 51,000 attendees. Among the most fervent fans are those who fly in to catch an annual lineup of Disney studio rarities, says Feibleman, who adds the Art, Architecture and Design series resonates strongly with responsive local auds.

It’s not hard to attract filmmakers to Newport Beach either, says Schwenk, who has confirmations from Ireland, Japan, Chile, Norway, South Korea and Sweden.

Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, also sees the NBFF’s attraction for filmmakers as they immediately get a real-world sense of how their film is playing. “In a way, it is an Anytown, USA-type audience, a real cross-section of people, from the affluent to hungry students, all of whom want to see something unusual,” says Bassett, noting how fest organizers have strategically enlarged the festival each year by reaching out to new segments of the community.

The 2011 edition is no exception, adding a music film series that caters to the O.C.’s emerging indie music scene with pics like Michele Benson’s “The Catalyst,” a profile of the legendary live-music venue in Santa Cruz, Calif. Events and parties also throw a wide net, with four major events entertaining more than 1,500 guests.

According to Schwenk, the festival and Orange County Film Society’s combined 45,000-plus database carries over to a film’s theatrical release. An early screening for “The King’s Speech,” for instance, produced positive word-of-mouth for the film and its 11-week run at the Regency Lido Theater, the longest of any film in the past four years.

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