For a community less than 80 years old, with a population south of 2,000, Sun Valley, Idaho, boasts a rich Hollywood history. It might have to do with being partly the invention of Averell Harriman, who invited celebrities like Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe to help shine a light on the newfangled resort town in the ’30s.
In ensuing years, a kind of 24-hour party train called the Snowball Special would roll in on Friday night from L.A.’s Union Station, just in time for the glitterati to recover and hit the slopes by Saturday morning.
So when screenwriter Teddy Grennan arrived one summer after getting fired from a job by Fox Searchlight and “moping around town,” the idea of starting a film festival seemed to draw on tradition and give him a sense of purpose.
“I called a couple of friends of mine,” recalls the fest executive director. “They said there’s film festivals everywhere. And I said there isn’t one in Sun Valley.”
If attaining the prestige of other ski-resort fests like Sundance and Telluride seems like a far-off dream, the SVFF, entering its fourth year March 4-8, has shown remarkable growth since its maiden incarnation, when attendance was just under 2,000; last year, that number approached 5,000.
But the challenges remain — competing with a roster of festivals that grows every year, proximity to SXSW (March 13-21) and Tribeca (April 15-26), not to mention awards-season fatigue.
“We’re small,” says Grennan. “We’ve got a limited crew, but we’re really competent. Every year we try to bring in something new, which adds extra kinks, but we’re getting there.”
Grennan will benefit from some star power, including the filmmaker behind the year’s highest-grossing Oscar nominee for best picture, “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood, who will receive the event’s inaugural Lifetime Vision Award.
Actors Bruce Dern and Bill Paxton will participate in the fest’s Coffee Talks panels, while scribes Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (“The Descendants”) will offer insight in the Screenwriters Lab.
There won’t be any bidding wars at Sun Valley, since a good majority of the 60 films programmed have distribution in place. Grennan uses his connections at such film companies as A24 and Lionsgate, and even music/audio post houses like Fall on Your Sword, to secure a few good titles.
“The biggest challenge is to get the distributors and studios to recognize the value of sending their films to Sun Valley,” says Grennan. “I don’t blame them. The marketing of these films, where they go, to what film festivals, is really important.
Unlike similarly small fests like Mill Valley, with its eco/music bent, or Woodstock, with its counterculture DNA, Grennan and programming director Laura Mehlhaff aim for something a tad more freewheeling, perhaps out of necessity.
“The lineup here continues to be a lot like KCRW’s ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic.’ You can get a great old Stones’ song mashed right up against LCD Soundsystem’s latest record,” Grennan says.
Going forward, Grennan plans to push the fest back to April in order to follow SXSW and give relief to an industry still recovering from its Oscar hangover.
“I want to give these guys a beat,” he says. “I think it’s better for us as we grow.”