Newport Beach Film Festival Showcases International and Local Films in Resort Setting by the Sea

The Exception Movie
Courtesy of Johan Voets

Fans and filmmakers alike flock to surfside venues

Quick, think of a sunny playground that hosts world cinema.

You’d be right if you said Cannes. But you’d also be right if you said Newport Beach, the coastal community and surfing mecca just south of Los Angeles.

The Newport Beach Film Festival continues to grow in size and stature. This year’s edition features an eclectic lineup of over 500 features, documentaries and shorts from 58 countries.

Launched in 1999 and quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing film festivals on the West Coast, NBFF presents a range of international productions from the studio and independent landscape, with various premiere screenings and an International Spotlight Series focusing on foreign language films.

“One of our big selling points is that our location is a gorgeous, luxury resort destination,” says fest co-founder and CEO Gregg Schwenk. “When combined with close proximity to L.A., and a fabulous line-up of films, this has become quite the event.”

The splashy opening night screening of “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton,” directed by Rory Kennedy (“The Last Days of Vietnam”) promises to be one of the fest’s biggest attractions. Tying into the surfing culture that’s inherent to Newport Beach, the West Coast premiere of the strongly reviewed doc will take place April 20, followed by a gala reception.

“It’s not just an action-sports documentary, it’s a fully immersive and emotional story … a portrait of an inspiring individual,” Schwenk says.

“Class Rank,” from director Eric Stoltz, is making its world premiere in Newport Beach. Schwenk calls the performance from female lead Olivia Holt “exceptionally strong” and notes that the film’s ensemble does “great work across the board.” A political satire set in high school, “Class Rank” seems likely to benefit from real-world political events that have recently made headlines. Bruce Dern and Kristin Chenoweth also star.

Brett Haley’s “The Hero,” also making its West Coast premiere, stars husband-and-wife team Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross. The film centers upon a former western film icon who has resorted to an easy, successful life of voiceover work and smoking pot before deciding to take on one more special role and rekindle his relationship with his estranged daughter.

“This is a best actor-type performance from Elliott and a chance for people to pay attention to one of our most underappreciated actors,” says Schwenk.

Also screening: Robert Mullan’s “Mad to Be Normal,” a ’60s-set drama with spikes of dark comedy featuring Elisabeth Moss and David Tennant. Schwenk calls Tennant’s performance “career-defining.”

The fest exec also praised “The Exception,” which is making its West Coast premiere and will serve as the closing-night selection. Directed by David Leveaux, it stars Christopher Plummer and Lily James. Schwenk calls James’ performance “a true breakout.”

All the films screened at the fest are carefully curated. “We take great pride in our selection process, viewing each submission five times before a decision is made,” says Schwenk.

Filmmaker and guest panels historically draw big crowds at NBFF. This year, “90% of our films have filmmaker participation,” says Schwenk. “They love bringing their work here because we’ve been a launching pad with direct access to responses from buyers and agents.”

This year the fest will offer various seminars related to acting, editing, screenwriting, and — in conjunction with Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch — a cinematography seminar with seven of the 10 lensers in attendance. “These events bring the audience closer to the movies and allow them to interact with the people making them.”

Special events are always a big part of NBFF, and 30 top Southern California restaurants will serve food there. Plus, every night includes a gala. Schwenk says he’s looking forward to a private Cirque du Soleil performance that will likely be a big draw for guests.

“Having grown up here, I can say Newport Beach is an incredible location,” Schwenk adds. “It would be a beautiful place to visit even if we didn’t have this film festival.”

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