Inaugural event harvests biz talent, award-season films

Napa Valley Film Festival co-founders Marc and Brenda Lhormer are about to bring in their first harvest.

The scale of the Nov. 9-13 festival is ambitious one for an inaugural outing: More than 100 films will be presented at 12 venues (albeit only one of them a formal theater), including Alexander Payne’s opening-nighter, “The Descendants,” which unspools at the 400-seat Napa Valley Opera House, and “J. Edgar” screening as a sneak preview Nov. 8. A $10,000 unrestricted cash prize awaits the winner of the narrative competition, and industryites will lead a daylong seminar for filmmakers.

As befits a festival set in the heart of California’s wine country, though, the focus is on feasting and imbibing as much as on the films; 125 area wineries will help lubricate the festivities, which open with a gala for 800 at the Robert Mondavi Winery, featuring an impressive array of Napa Valley-based chefs.

The Lhormers already had a well-established rep as fest organizers after seven years at the head of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, in the adjacent, more rural, winemaking county. But they learned firsthand the pitfalls and pleasures of indie filmmaking and distribution when they produced 2008’s “Bottle Shock,” about Napa wines’ triumph at a pivotal 1976 Paris tasting. The next spring, the two were talking with Sonoma Valley resident and winery owner John Lasseter, who also happens to be Pixar and Walt Disney’s animation honcho, and he suggested Napa Valley was ripe for its own film festival.

While 2009 wasn’t the best year to raise money, the Lhormers attracted local patrons from among the scenic towns of Calistoga, Napa, St. Helena and Yountville, which have their share of deep-pocketed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as well as notable industryites. Still, Marc Lhormer termed the festival an “entrepreneurial venture funded by sweat equity.”

The Lhormers pitched the Napa’s Destination Council — the valley’s tourism board — on the idea, emphasizing that the festival’s potential cultural draw would marry well with the valley’s epicurean rep. Meadowood Napa Valley resort liked the concept enough to sponsor the festival’s artists-in-residence program as well as a workshop for filmmakers; it’s also underwriting the narrative competition prize.

“We wanted to find something to contribute that would be meaningful,” says Ann Marie Conover, the resort’s director of marketing.

The daylong master class at Meadowood brings biz mentors and filmmakers together. Expected forum participants include John Sloss of Cinetic Media (and narrative jury prexy), producer Michael De Luca (whose feature “Butter” is screening at the fest) and producer/manager Keith Addis.

In addition to the local support, the fest has since signed on big corporate sponsors, including Virgin America and Mercedes Benz.

Lhormer notes that the fest’s mid-November date is intended to attract awards-season studio pics. Indie filmmakers got the pitch, too, via a well-attended launch party at Sundance 2011 featuring wine from 16 Napa Valley wineries.

Although landing high profile pics is a notable coup for a first-ever fest, the festival’s challenge then becomes how to lure auds to see those films without the draw of name talent or docus that take on difficult topics. “We’ve done a lot of niche marketing,” explains Lhormer.

Writer-director Nicholas Ozeki, who has made the rounds of the festival circuit via several short films and his debut feature “Mamitas,” says the fest organizers have impressed him. “I’ve been to a good cross-section of festivals out there, and one of the most important things for filmmakers is an atmosphere of appreciation,” he says. “It’s gratifying that the people organizing the festival know how much work goes into making a film.”

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