Napa Valley Film Fest Widens Its Scope

The growing ambitions and scope of the Napa Valley Film Festival, now in its fifth year, are evidenced by several high-profile events, including an opening night world premiere of “Somm: Into the Bottle,” and gala screenings of such buzzy awards season fare as “Spotlight,” starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton, and “Carol” from director Todd Haynes, who’s expected to attend.

The event commands a bit more real estate than the usual film fest, being spread out over 12 screening venues in the towns of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga — essentially ground zero of California wine country.

“We’ve come a long way in a very short time,” says NVFF co-founder/artistic director Marc Lhormer, who reports that filmmaker submissions jumped 50% this year. “While we’ll be screening about 120 films, the same as last year, I feel the quality of the submissions is going up, so we’ve had some hard decisions to make. The word is out from people who’ve attended four years running, and, of course, we do have an unfair advantage compared to all the other festivals, as all the local wineries and restaurants get involved, and people stay in great places and get treated really well.”

But it’s not just the filmmakers who get special treatment. “Our audiences have great interaction with the filmmakers that extends beyond all the Q&As, panels and so on,” he notes, “and in response to all the sold-out screenings we had last year, we’ve invested in a greatly expanded seating capacity this year.”

The addition of three venues (400, 850, 1,200 seats respectively) translates to 50% more seats and, along with new, staggered starting times, means that the fest “is more customer-friendly than ever, and now geared up for continued audience growth,” Lhormer says.

The celebrity quotient this year includes John Travolta and Bruce Dern, “and what’s cool is that the stars are not just here for the tributes and honors, but are also part of the independent films we’re showing,” Lhormer says.

Travolta, who’s getting Napa’s Career Achievement Award, will be on hand for the world premiere of his new movie “Life on the Line.” “We’re thrilled he’s chosen us as opposed to taking it to Sundance or Tribeca,” says Lhormer. Keegan-Michael Key, who’s getting a Trailblazer Tribute, is supporting “Welcome to Happiness.”

In terms of positioning the fest in an ever more crowded fall schedule, Lhormer and his team have found a sweet spot. “Right from the start, the plan was always to present the meat of the program — the 100 or so narrative, documentaries and shorts — as ‘the best of the year’ in independent film,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve played other festivals earlier in the year. They’re just great films we’ve curated for a very curious, discerning audience that loves to come here. And we draw people from all over the country and abroad, so it’s a nice destination festival. And because we’re right smack in the middle of the awards season, we’re able to then layer on top of all the competition films screenings of ‘Carol,’ ‘The 33,’ or ‘Born to Be Blue’ on closing night.”

Lhormer reports that fest organizers teamed with Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos for this year’s Ten to Taste program, “a very fun idea of picking 10 aspiring local chefs and pairing each one with an iconic food-themed movie, and having them create a dish.”

“But it’s perfect when a film like ‘Somm’ comes along. It’s just a natural pairing for us.”

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