When filmmakers and stars walk the red carpet at the Mill Valley Film Festival, they probably notice something. Namely that the “carpet” can be a packed-dirt floor surrounded by trees.

“I see Emma Stone coming in on her fabulous high heels into the redwood grove when we showed ‘La La Land’ last year on opening night,” recalls festival director of programming Zoë Elton. “Later in the evening she said, ‘I wished I’d brought my sneakers with me!’”

The Mill Valley Film Festival, which celebrates its 40th edition Oct. 5-15, has never been a typical awards-season blowout event. Based in Marin County, it comes early in in the season on the heels of Toronto, Telluride and Venice — and frequently provides West Coast awards groups’ voters with their first chance to eyeball some of the season’s hottest commodities. Yet those screenings come on a digestible level: on smaller screens — there are just nine plus a music venue — amid the nature-filled surroundings of Marin County, north of San Francisco, and it is neither a market nor a competitive event.

That atypicality has always been part of the mission statement, according to festival founder and director Mark Fishkin, who ditched his art gallery in Colorado to relocate to the West Coast in 1977 and quickly found himself the owner of a small theater and guiding force behind a film festival.
“We are noncompetitive, with an emphasis on honoring the best in the film world through tributes and spotlights, but also trying to include every demographic, including children,” he says. “That’s how it’s been from inception.”

“This place has always been the epicenter of so much innovation, of so many thought leaders and artists that that sensibility has permeated what this festival is,” says Elton, who has also been with the festival in one capacity or the other since it began. “I feel like this is a dress rehearsal for what is coming for so many people: filmmakers, actors. We’re like a first-look festival.”
This year, the festival will be giving early looks of films including its opening-night pair of “Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright; “Wait for Your Laugh,” a documentary by Jason Wise; and closing night film “Lady Bird,” written and directed by Greta Gerwig.

In addition, there are a series of tributes and honors and multiple-themed sections, including one for documentaries called Valley of the Docs; the Active Cinema section, which focuses on activist films; Viva el Cine, which focuses on Latin American films; and the new Mind the Gap honors, for women creatives and technistas whose work focuses on closing the industry’s gender gap. Mind the Gap is an ongoing fall screening series that will also have a full-day summit on achieving gender parity in film this year.

I feel like this is a dress rehearsal for what is coming for so many people: filmmakers, actors. We’re like a first-look festival.”
Zoë Elton

That focus on women in the industry and general inclusivity is an integral part of MVFF’s mission statement. In honor of this year’s milestone, Elton says they set a goal of having 40% of the directors featured in the festival be women; having reached and surpassed that goal the festival will now have 44% female helmers. If you add writers and producers to that mix, the number goes to 64%.

“We wanted this to have a deep imprint on the festival, and for us to be a role model about what can be done upping the ante this way,” says Elton, who notes that the festival’s parent company, the California Film Institute, keeps several programs continuing throughout the year. “The work we’ve been doing in identifying female-forward storytelling is a helpful tool in the way we develop our education program.”

Such sophisticated programming took some time to find its groove, but even from its earliest days Fishkin knew he wanted to show films others might not notice. He says they began by emphasizing Bay Area filmmakers, and once focused on the Australian New Wave. Then in 1987, a film called “Walking on Water” premiered at the festival and was quickly snapped up by Paramount, which renamed it “Stand and Deliver.” Ever since, MVFF has been on the map for savvy festival-goers and potential buyers.
Today, the festival sells upward of 67,000 tickets for events and films, and continues to have the reputation as the best little fest north of the Bay.

To Fishkin, it’s the realization of a long-held and long-lived dream. “I want people to be stimulated and go home and finish that painting or have some film affect them in a meaningful way,” he says. “I believed when I first started the festival that I could change the world with one film. I shortly realized that wasn’t going to happen, but I did realize that you could have an effect anyway, one great film at a time.”