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Now celebrating a landmark 20th year, the Newport Beach Film Festival, which runs April 25-May 2, has become a major fixture on the crowded festival circuit and is increasingly recognized internationally as one of the leading lifestyle film fests in the U.S. This year it will spotlight more than 350 films from some 55 countries, bringing to Orange County the highlights of classic and contemporary filmmaking and showcasing a diverse collection of studio and independent films from around the world.

“The theme this year is the Power of Ideas,” says NBFF CEO and executive director Gregg Schwenk, who has helped spearhead the festival’s impressive growth and broadened its horizons over the years. “We’ve always focused on diverse, strong filmmaking, and we’re most proud of how we’ve been embraced, not just by our audience, but by the filmmaking community. This year we have an exceptionally strong lineup of features, with a record number of U.S. premieres and filmmakers at the festival.”

For Schwenk, there are several core strengths that help distinguish the festival from its competitors: “First and foremost, our beach location and proximity to Hollywood. A lot of distributors and sales agents come down here, and the industry — both film and TV — looks to us as a big launching pad for releases over the next three or so months, as well as a place to discover new films — both American and international.”

As important as the films is the program, which “resonates with our audience, and many of our programs have become best-in-class, not just in the U.S. but across the world,” adds Schwenk. He cites the fest’s culinary series, a documentary film program that celebrates gourmet chefs, the art of gastronomy, international food culture, sustainable farming and the crafts of winemaking and distilling.

“It’s one of the strongest culinary programs at any film festival in the country,” Schwenk says. “We also have our popular Art, Architecture + Design [AA+D] series, which showcases films celebrating art and architecture, design, photography, sculpture, painting, typography, advertising, publishing, urban planning and immersive art.”

The international showcase will spotlight nine independent feature-length and seven short documentary films. The Action Sports series, presented by Vans, is an international showcase designed to celebrate athletes and filmmakers who have shaped the action sports culture. “That culture is a huge part of SoCal. No one comes close in terms of our coverage,” Schwenk says.

NBFF is also showcasing Irish cinema and hosting the largest collection of Irish film in its history. The shorts program, with over 200 films this year, is one of the largest in the country. Additionally, the fest is highlighting films from Chile, South Korea, Britain, Australia and China.

But that’s not all. “From a genre perspective we’ve also made sure we have films that really reflect the huge diversity and interests of Southern California and Orange County,” he adds.

That means that in addition to the AA+D and Action Sports coverage, the fest features an environmental program and a music film series. The latter will showcase eight independent feature-length films, a Music Video Showcase and five short films from around the world.

“Like surfing, music has always been a huge part of the local culture,” notes Schwenk. The program spotlights music performances, historical music venues, popular music movements, notable bands, and the lives and legacies of emerging and seasoned musicians.

In its strong documentary slate, NBFF is showcasing, among other films, the activist “Breaking Their Silence: Women on the Frontline of the Poaching War,” a look at wildlife traffickers in Africa and the women who risk their lives to thwart them, from filmmaker Kerry David; and “Stalag Luft III – One Man’s Story,” the true tale of Charles Woehrle, now 93, who narrates his remarkable sage of survival after being shot down during World War II, from filmmaker Louise Woehrle.

Looking ahead, Schwenk predicts more growth for the fest. “Our audience comes from all over California as well as other states, and we’re seeing people come from around the world to enjoy both the festival and the great beach lifestyle here. We expect this year’s audience to exceed 55,000, and we’re now the largest film festival in coastal Southern California. If you look at L.A. County, Orange County and San Diego County, nothing comes close.”