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Napa Valley Film Festival Rises After Fires Devastate Region

Watching as Northern California’s wine country became engulfed by flames that scorched 220,000 acres and claimed the lives of 42 people, Napa Valley Film Festival co-founders and directors Marc and Brenda Lhormer teetered on the brink of canceling this year’s fete.

“During the first days, we only were hearing and fearing the worst,” says Marc Lhormer of unfounded rumors that partner wineries and hotels had been destroyed. “Brenda and I actually left our home and, living out of a suitcase for nine nights, kept moving things forward.”

He adds that two days after the fires erupted, the couple gathered their team. “We went around the room asking if everyone, and their families and loved ones, was OK, and we discussed how we could help each other. Then, we had to determine if we were all mentally and physically up for putting on the show, a show everyone had worked so hard on, full time, all year long.”

Having received a unanimous yes, Lhormer next reached out to partners to find out if they, too, were “prepared to — and desirous of — moving forward.”

The answer, again, was a resounding yes.

“We decided that we could be a wonderful and soulful reason why visitors might choose to come up to Napa Valley sooner than later, to spend money and support the recovery,” says Lhormer of the decision to proceed with the festival, running Nov. 8-12, and expected to bring in an estimated $5 million locally.

“The valley is open for business and we want to help shout that message to the mountain tops,” says Lhormer, who announced that 10% of pass sales sold from Oct. 16 on would be donated to the Napa Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Additionally, presenting sponsor Lexus will donate 1,000 movie tickets to those directly impacted by the fires.

Of the 124 movies being screened this year, almost half are shorts, including narrative and documentary. “We believe the shorts are so important to highlight,” says Lhormer, “as they are calling cards for new storytelling talent.”

Case in point: three actors will make their directorial debuts in the program: Lea Thompson (in the core competition with “The Year of Spectacular Men”), Eric Stolz and Judy Greer (in the alternative competition Lounge program with “Class Rank” and “A Happening of Monumental Proportions,” respectively).

“We are especially proud of our Veterans Day program,” says Lhormer, “with four powerful docs presented back- to-back at the Lincoln Theater on the grounds of the largest Veterans Home in the country, right here on the hillside about Yountville.”

Each of the films — “Blood Road,” “Man in Red Bandana,” “Served Like a Girl,” and “LA 92” — deals with hard-hitting relevant social issues, including themes of service to others, heroism and standing up to social injustice.

Rounding out this year’s offerings are films already generating awards buzz, including “Call Me by Your Name,” “The Shape of Water,” “Molly’s Game” and “I, Tonya.”

A highlight of the 7-year-old festival is Variety’s 10 to Taste event, which showcases local rising stars on the Bay Area culinary scene, chefs and students who create small bites inspired by a favorite film, presented by the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.

“These experiences have become somewhat of an ‘underground’ trend in the culinary industry, allowing for chefs who lack physical brick and mortar locations to brand themselves and establish a following on their own,” Lhormer says.

This year, the focus is on the idea of pop-up restaurants and secret dinners, and contenders include Brett Schaublin, Christian Graze and Hannah Hedley. Panelists include Food Network’s celebrity chef Jaymee Sire, Whole Foods Market chef ambassador Melissa King and actor David Arquette, who stars in the NVFF17 Lounge feature “Amanda & Jack Go Glamping.”

Since this is a festival in the middle of California’s wine country, five of the festival’s signature events take place at wineries: Italics Winegrowers, Eleven Eleven Winery, Raymond Vineyards, and Materra | Cunat Family Vineyards.

“We feel there’s a special kinship between independent filmmakers and the fiercely independent grape growers and winemakers who are the backbone of this community,” says Lhormer, adding that more than 100 wineries will participate.

“We aspire to present the best festival experience overall, a true meeting of artists and audience, in an atmosphere that almost demands that one slow down and unplug from daily routines and concerns, and plug into another deeper and thoughtful dimension. The NVFF is the ultimate celebration of film, food and wine, but also — and especially this year — creativity, culture and an indomitable community spirit.”

The Napa Valley Film Festival honorees:

Will Ferrell
Maverick Award
The actor, of course, is best-known for his comic creations: Ron Burgundy from the “Anchorman” films, Chazz Michael Michaels from “Blades of Glory,” Ricky Bobby in “Talledega Nights” and Brad Whitaker, from “Daddy’s Home.” Brad is back onscreen Nov. 10 in ‘Daddy’s Home 2,” this time with John Lithgow as his celluloid dad. But the Napa fest is not only recognizing Ferrell’s prolific comic career — his production shingle Gary Sanchez Prods. is behind films of all genres, including a remake of German hit “Toni Erdman” — but also his actual acting chops, screening 2006 pic “Stranger Than Fiction,” from helmer Marc Forster. Ferrell will be onstage Nov. 10 at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville.

Nancy Meyers
Charles Krug Legendary
Filmmaker Award
The writer-director has given appreciative audiences such films as “It’s Complicated,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Private Benjamin,” “Father of the Bride” and “The Intern.” She recently produced the Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy “Home Again,” directed by her daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer. A pioneer female filmmaker, who’s enjoyed much box office success, she fits the definition of an American auteur — her movies have her distinctive touch, and audiences know they can count on her.

Michael Shannon
Raymond Vineyards Trailblazer
The Trailblazer award is appropriate for the actor, who can be trusted to tackle challenging material such as “Midnight Special,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “Take Shelter,” as well as festival favorites like “Shape of Water,” which opens the Napa Valley Film Festival. Many also know him for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” where his star really took off. Shannon’s General Zod tried and failed to destroy Superman in “Man of Steel” and in the NVFF screener “The Current War,” he plays George Westinghouse, locked in battle with Thomas Edison.

Michael Stuhlbarg
Spotlight Tribute
The versatile actor is a standout in two awards season contenders: “Call Me by Your Name” and “The Shape of Water.” Both will be screened at Napa. He scored a Golden Globe actor nom for the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” as well as numerous Screen Actors Guild noms going back to 2001. The actor never seems to be out of work, whether in TV (“Fargo,” and like fellow honoree Michael Shannon, he was a standout on “Boardwalk Empire”) and film (“Arrival,” “Dr. Strange” and many others).

Tessa Thompson
JCB Collection Trailblazer
Thompson garnered notice in Sundance satire “Dear White People” and then proved her star power in Ryan Coogler’s hit “Creed,” in which she showed off her singing chops. While the actress has a solid list of indie credits, she is now thrilling audiences in the latest Marvel superhero installment, “Thor: Ragnarok,” in which she is getting great reviews as Valkyrie. She also had a very memorable character arc in HBO’s “Westworld.” Next year, she stars in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” with Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac and Gina Rodriguez, and has ”Sorry to Bother You,” with Armie Hammer, on deck.

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