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Newport Beach Film Fest Fills Bill for Underserved O.C. Art House Market

The 90-second promo spot for the 16th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, running April 23-30, has a vaguely Eastern European air about it. It features a spiky-haired, trap-shooting goth girl who wouldn’t look out of place in the upcoming “Mad Max” sequel. As she hits her targets, the black-and-white imagery is flooded with explosions of color, as the screen displays the mantra “Know new art.”

The clip is a compelling blend of artsy and populist elements, and suggests the sense of discovery all first-class film festivals strive for. And for roughly the week the NBFF takes over more than a dozen screens in the area, Orange County — largely underserved in the arthouse arena — is fed an alternative to multiplex fare.

Gregg Schwenk, executive director-CEO of the NBFF who co-founded the event 17 years ago, has done his homework. A UC Berkeley alum who once worked on a project for the Spanish government that gauged the economic benefit of film production, his passion is for the “business side” of show business. During the fest’s nascent stages, he found that “there is no better destination or backdrop for an international film festival than Newport Beach.”

And while it might not be landing the kinds of world premieres that top-tier film fests claim as their calling card, the posh seaside playground itself is enough to entice audiences and filmmakers alike to make the effort.

“Every festival in the world is challenged by finding competitive programming,” says Schwenk. “But moreover, it’s about satisfying our audience and fulfilling our filmmakers. We do screen to full houses, to extremely appreciative audiences. And it is a location that filmmakers around the world want to come to. And given its proximity to Hollywood, it’s a real strategic advantage.”

The event attracts people from beyond the surrounding beach communities, with 30%-40% of its audience coming from outside the Orange County metro area, according to Schwenk. “So we’re pulling in from L.A., from San Diego, as well as international.”

Based on the past three years, the fest’s patrons average about 35 years of age, he says, with approximately 60% women and an average household income of about $150,000. Also, the number of film buyers, sales agents and distributors — both domestic and international — who attend “has grown exponentially,” according to Schwenk.

This year, the festival will open with Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, “The Water Diviner,” which takes place in the aftermath of the WWI battle of Gallipoli in Turkey; the fest closes with the world premiere of “No Stranger Than Love,” starring Colin Hanks and Alison Brie.

The film festival has programmed more than 350 films from 50 countries based on more than 3,000 submissions, quite a leap from the previous high of 2,400.

Other narrative offerings Schwenk is enthusiastic about are the French-language “Passion of Augustine,” about the restorative power of music; “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the story of a high school senior who befriends a classmate dying from leukemia, which was enthusiastically received at Sundance in January; and Alan Rickman’s “A Little Chaos,” which stars Kate Winslet as a landscape gardener in the court of Louis XIV.

The program also includes retrospectives (“Clueless,” “La Bamba”); an Irish Spotlight; showcases dedicated to the Pacific Rim, Latin America and Europe, the latter featuring French awards magnet and 2014 Cannes entry “Love at First Fight”; an Orson Welles centennial tribute; and a spotlight dedicated to the town’s most famous local hero, the late John Wayne, that will feature a showing of “The Green Berets.”

For the second year, Variety will honor its 10 Cinematographers to Watch at the fest on April 26.

Based on recent activity, the festival should start out with a bang. “We have had the largest interest in an opening-night film in the history of the festival,” says Schwenk about “The Water Diviner.” Not a bad way to kick things off.

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