The setting: Newport Beach’s Fashion Island, located in the heart of Los Angeles County’s often under-appreciated southern cousin, Orange County. The timing: late April, several months after the Academy Awards, and diametrically removed from the autumnal crunch of SoCal festivals piggybacking on awards season attention.
And yet in spite of — or perhaps because of — its relatively untouched position on the planet and the calendar, the Newport Beach Film Festival welcomes its 15th iteration with a bevy of panels, events and screenings befitting its large, often underserved cinephile community.
“We’re a very sophisticated audience, and a very dedicated audience,” says festival CEO and executive director Gregg Schwenk of his O.C. clientele. “But we’re also one that has not been jaded by the continual bombardment of screening options. I can’t tell you the number of invitations to screenings and events I get up in Los Angeles, and I sometimes listen to audiences there, and it can be a very jaded group of people. I think that makes us special here in Orange County.”
According to Schwenk, the festival, which runs from April 24 through May 1, will screen approximately 320 films from 50 countries, with at least 80% of the associated filmmakers slated to attend.
So far, advance ticket sales are up 10% from last year’s fest, which Schwenk says saw 53,500 attendees over the week, a steady increase from years prior. Uniquely for this year, Schwenk notes that he expects almost twice as many film buyers to descend on the coastal town as 2013.
“It hadn’t really been a focus of ours, but it grew very organically,” Schwenk says of the increased industry presence. “What I’m hearing from the savvy film buyer out there is that it’s easier for them to send two or three people down to Newport than to travel to some of the further afield festivals, especially when Newport has gone through and found some of the standouts from other festivals, or they’re making their U.S. or world premiere here.”
On that note, the fest opens with the world premiere of the Matt LeBlanc-Chevy Chase starrer “Lovesick,” with John Favreau’s “Chef” closing out proceedings. In between, Newport will host such recent fest players — selected by its 20-person programming team — as “God Help the Girl,” “Attila Marcel,” “Belle,” “Obvious Child” and “We’ll Never Have Paris.”
“We’ve all been to major fests where they’ve held the world premiere of a very bad film. We love a premiere, but I’d much rather screen a quality film that is going to resonate with my audience and also garner the respect of the industry.”
Going forward, Schwenk says he hopes to increase the fest’s sponsorships with nonprofits — pairing charities with screenings of films relevant to their causes — as well as deepening its international reach, with filmmaker exchanges promoting increased tourism.
Newport Fest organizers also look to beef up the Orange County Film Society, which the festival founded in 2006 to sponsor year-round events, including For Your Consideration screenings and panels to make up for what Newport misses in award season programming. (Recent best picture winners “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo” and “The Artist” all conducted screening programs through the Society.)
While the likes of Santa Barbara and Palm Springs are well known as satellite biz haunts, Schwenk says the O.C. filmmaker community is “extremely vibrant, diverse, and always willing to commute.”