How do you turn a local festival based in the 89th-most populous city in California into an international destination?
The Newport Beach Film Festival’s rise in prominence over the past 17 years holds a few lessons for similar events looking to expand their global appeal.
“We work throughout the year to build partnerships with major international organizations, integrating with them in substantial ways to directly engage with expatriate communities here in Southern California,” says CEO/co-founder Greg Schwenk. “We let them know that the Newport Beach Film Festival not only cares about them but, more importantly, about the unique voices that their filmmakers possess.”
Reaching out to local branches of such institutions as the German American Business Assn., British-American Business Council, Brazil California Chamber of Commerce and Australia’s G’Day USA for the April 21-28 event also has helped organically boost its international profile. “Through the filmmakers, we’ve been able to engage parts of their communities” here and abroad, Schwenk says, and make the films “relevant to Southern California.”
The result is a fest offering “outstanding global cinema with a strong local appeal,” including over 350 films from 50 countries. The partnerships have bolstered international programs like this year’s Irish Spotlight and its Pacific Rim, European and Latino showcases.
But even with its international focus, the NBFF hasn’t lost sight of what brought people here in the first place. “The greatest unique selling point of Newport Beach is its location,” says Schwenk. “There’s no more beautiful backdrop for a global film festival, and we definitely incorporate our locale.
“Newport Beach and Orange County have a very strong tradition of not only filmmaking, but also entertaining, since the golden age of celebrities,” Schwenk adds. “And our proximity to Hollywood really allows people on both sides of the camera to participate and engage with our audience.”
That location — about an hour south of Los Angeles — might help attract a starry turnout when NBFF honors two entertainment icons with Legend Awards and screenings of their current works: Rita Moreno, who stars in the dramedy “Remember Me,” and Burt Bacharach, who scored the drama “Po.” Kate Beckinsale and Linda Woolverton are also being honored for their acting and screenwriting careers, respectively.
While Schwenk is proud of acclaimed imports like Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” (Ireland, Netherlands, France), “A Man Called Ove” (Sweden), “Flying Colors” (Japan), “The Phone” (South Korea), “High-Rise” (U.K.), “One Breath” (Germany) and “My Name Is Emily” (Ireland) — noting that the latter was directed by ALS-stricken helmer Simon Fitzmaurice entirely via movements of his eye — Stateside work is represented in key slots. The opening night film & gala is the world premiere of the comedy-tinged drama “After the Reality” starring Matthew Morrison, and the closing night film is “The Fixer” starring James Franco and Melissa Leo.
And though Schwenk downplays it a bit, NBFF has made a few smart decisions that capitalize on films with local appeal. One of the first sellout screenings is the Newport Beach surfing doc “Dirty Old Wedge,” and another doc, “La Tradition,” profiles top Orange County-based chef Pascal Olhats — both serving as onscreen extensions of top tourist highlights. Music docs like “Desert Age: A Rock and Roll Scene History” and “A Fat Wreck” spotlight the California music scene.
“We work very hard from the beginning of the process to review and deliberate over every film that is submitted — so much so that each one is reviewed five times in its entirety before a decision is made,” Schwenk says.
By contrast, fest organizers make sure that all the hard work doesn’t show, allowing attendees to feel like they’re on a breezy Newport Beach vacation.
“When you combine our film lineup with some incredible parties and private receptions and yachts and so forth, it’s a pretty compelling mix.”