Founded in the 1930s as a ski resort by railroad magnate W. Averell Harriman, Sun Valley, Idaho, swiftly grew to become a winter playground for the rich and famous. It was pushed to prominence by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe, oft photographed dining at the area’s famed steakhouses or frolicking in its powdery snow.
Decades later, the Sun Valley Film Festival, kicking off its fifth year March 2, pays homage to its town’s storied beginnings, with a Wild West feel that combines with
a low-key, shabby-chic Hollywood crowd to create a fecund artistic haven for filmmakers, writers and assorted cineastes.
“It’s like a little Hollywood ski Shangri-la,” says SVFF executive director Teddy Grennan of the fest, which attracts a mix of small-town locals and second-home owners from Los Angeles who’ve come to escape the daily grind. “I think that’s one of the reasons that people keep coming back. It’s very heavy on the party. It’s very ‘festival.’ We’ve got more films screening than you can shake a stick at. The only complaint we tend to get from people who come to the fest is that they didn’t have time to ski — there’s just too much to do.”
Past festival attendees have included Bruce Dern, Mariel Hemingway, Jodie Foster and Kevin Smith. “Our repeat numbers (of attendees) are astounding,” says fest director Candice Pate. “We have talent that’s come up for what will now be their fifth year, and we’re like, ‘We don’t have anything official for you to do this year,’ but they still just want to come.”
Highlights of this year’s event, which is expected to draw more than 3,500 attendees — an impressive number given how tiny and remote Sun Valley is compared to its more established cousins Sundance and Telluride — include screenings of 60 films (opening with “The Man Who Knew Infinity” and closing with “I Saw the Light”); intimate coffee talks with industry figures including Amy Smart, producer Chris Moore and Oliver Stone, recipient of the 2016 SVFF Lifetime Vision Award; and a screenwriters lab with actor-producer Nat Faxon (“The Descendants”) as judge and mentor, plus Mark Duplass, co-creator of the HBO series “Togetherness,” as host. The High Scribe screenplay competition, the winner of which will be announced during the screenwriters lab, and the One Potato short screenplay competitions are steady fest favorites.
Also on the SVFF schedule is a film lab in which Sundance’s director of programming, Trevor Groth, will screen two films, both works-in-progress, followed by a Q&A during which the two teams of filmmakers will duke it out for $5,000 in finishing funds from Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Bonus: Attendees get a Tito’s drink on the house.
“Things like this are giving us a little bit of notoriety among filmmakers coming up here,” Grennan says. “This is something we thought there was a real need for, to position these filmmakers in front of a sophisticated audience while they discuss why they decided to make the film, what inspired them, what their process was like. The filmmakers have been very responsive to the notes and criticism they’ve received over the past five years.”
It’s the casual, come-as-you-are atmosphere of these workshop events — “the theater where we hold our coffee talks is kind of dumpy, but fun,” says Grennan — that helps set Sun Valley apart from other fests.
“It’s a very personable film festival,” he says. “People who come here — they get very personal. Jodie Foster got very personable her first year (at a coffee talk). Kevin Smith got pretty crazy his time here. The coffee talks are kind of our crown jewel.”
“It feels like a festival that has been around for longer than five years,” adds Pate. “We’ve designed a festival as a place where you can hang out, party together and inspire each other while remembering one’s love for the creative craft.”