Now in its 39th year, the Mill Valley Film Festival has grown from an intimate, three-day gathering in the artsy, hippie kingdom of the San Francisco Bay area to an 11-day cinema-packed fete of international renown attracting award-winning filmmakers, actors, and seasoned industry vets.
“It has the clout of an urban festival and the ambience of a destination festival,” is how Mark Fishkin, fest founder and executive director of the California Film Institute, describes the Mill Valley scene.
This year’s fest, which takes place Oct. 6-16, features a sparkly line-up of buzzworthy titles, including opening-night movies “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s love letter to old Hollywood musicals, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s haunting and ethereal sic-fi thriller starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. “Loving,” Jeff Nichols’ historical account of Richard and Mildred Loving, an inter-racial couple who fought for the right to stay married in Virginia in the late 1950s and ’60s, closes the fest.
MVFF’s slate also features a bevy of spotlights and tributes to high-wattage power players, from Nicole Kidman, whose child adoption drama “Lion” plays the fest, to Ewan McGregor, whose directorial effort “American Pastoral,” will screen. Also on tap is a selection of panels and master classes, such as the Variety-sponsored The Women Behind “Hidden Figures,” an in-depth conversation about the making of the upcoming historical drama, with Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000; Marisa Paiva, vice president of production at Fox 2000; and Mandy Walker, cinematographer.
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A brand new series of screenings and panels about the convergence of marijuana and entertainment and marijuana and professional athletics — aptly titled Smoke Screens — will also be on offer.
“California has been at the forefront of medical marijuana for a long time, so we felt it was a timely way to focus on this,” says Fishkin. “The way that marijuana has been and has come to be portrayed in movies and in sports over the years was a really interesting thing for us to look at.”
But whether it’s a star-studded soiree or a live musical performance at one of the area’s cozy concert halls, what continues to set Mill Valley apart from other fests, says Fishkin, is its collective role as “trusted curator” of the industry’s most celebrated cinematic talent — whether big or small or anywhere in between.
“It’s great to be steeped in this history that we have and to be so excited about what’s happening with the festival,” says Fishkin, already brainstorming ideas for the fest’s 40th anniversary in 2017. “It’s a really tremendous responsibility and an honor to know that people come to the festival knowing that the quality of what we present is going to be worthy of their time and worthy of their money. And having this really important role as a trusted curator has been very important to
us, whether it was back when we started out in 1977 as a three-day festival primarily showing local Bay Area work, versus now where you see films and premieres from dozens of countries all over the world.”
Presentation, says Fishkin, has remained a core focus of the festival over the years, with efforts taken to restore theatrical venues so that each screening experience, which take place in Mill Valley and neighboring San Rafael, Larkspur, and Corte Madera, is the best it can possible be.
“Obviously, you can’t have everything up to the standards of the [Christopher B.] San Rafael Film Center, but that’s constantly on my mind,” says Fishkin. “In 2008 we, along with a number of philanthropic partners, bought the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley and starting as soon as the lease is up and we take control, we will be remodeling the theater in the same fashion we did the San Rafael. I think this incremental growth of our facilities over time has added to the momentum of where we are now as a fest.”Overall, what preserves Mill Valley’s down-to-earth quality, says Fishkin, is the fact that, unlike Cannes and Sundance and other prize-laden fests, Mill Valley steers clear of “best-of” awards, favoring an attitude of celebration over competition.
“We are not a competitive festival, and we are not marketed in that sense, and there’s an ambience that is created at this festival where, even thought we’ve gown substantially over time, it remains very relaxed,” he says. “We do honor filmmakers, and that’s very important, regardless of the size of the budget or whether it’s new work that’s extraordinary or someone’s lifetime of work, but our focus is more on the bonding between filmmakers. It really is the best of both worlds.”