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Located 14 miles north of San Francisco with a population of just over 14,000, the community of Mill Valley has evolved into a West Coast epicenter for showcasing independent and international films. As the Mill Valley Film Festival prepares to celebrate its 45th year with screenings of films by Rian Johnson (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”), Darren Aronofsky (“The Whale”) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”), original founder and director Mark Fishkin attributes its pedigree for attracting top-tier talent to its unique combination of geographic and philosophical specificities. 

“The Mill Valley Film Festival has the best of both worlds: the clout of an urban festival and the ambiance of the destination festival,” says Fishkin. “And this aspect of being professional but unpretentious is still very important to us.” 

Fishkin conceived the festival, running Oct. 6-16 this year, precisely because he managed to be in the right place at the right time. A former ceramics sculptor operating an art gallery in Aurora, Colo., in the 1970s, Fishkin visited the Telluride Film Festival, then only in its second year, because a friend opened a restaurant there. That festival experience sparked feelings rooted in his days of playing hooky from school to watch the “Million Dollar Movie” on local New York television station WOR. 

Shortly thereafter, Fishkin moved to Northern California seeking to buy a movie theater. 

“A couple of them fell through, and then I found this little theater in Mill Valley, and I immediately used it to start the festival,” he says. 

Without a lot of other festivals to draw upon for operational guidance, Fishkin launched Mill Valley as a nonprofit organization. 

He would set the programming mold in the festival’s first year by showcasing a pair of Marin County directors: Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. “I showed Francis Coppola’s very first film, ‘The Rain People,’ and a little-known film by George Lucas on the making of ‘The Rain People,’ called
‘The Filmmaker.’ ” 

Buoyed by the support of other local filmmakers including John Korty and Hal Ashby, whom the festival would later honor, Fishkin formulated a simple ethos for choosing which films to show.  

“Whether you call it coming from the Beat [Generation] or the ’60s or even influenced by myself and other programmers unconsciously, we do love all kinds of film, but the highest level has to have something to say.” 

The festival has since honored or invited hundreds of artists to attend, including Robin Williams, Helen Mirren, Mira Nair, Roger Corman, Bradley Cooper, Waldo Salt, Ismail Merchant and Brie Larson.

For Mill Valley’s 45th anniversary, programmers have assembled a murderers row of films and filmmakers including the festival’s opening night, which “Glass Onion” writer-director Johnson will attend with three cast members and producer Ram Bergman. Additionally, “Clemency” director Chinonye Chukwu will make his second appearance at Mill Valley with his latest film, “Till” and its star Danielle Deadwyler. Brendan Fraser will receive an award for acting in conjunction with Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” which makes its West Coast premiere. And “White Noise” will screen in conjunction with an in-person presentation of the festival’s screenwriting award to director Noah Baumbach. 

“I don’t know what these filmmakers have been eating over this pandemic, but it’s really quite remarkable,” says Fishkin. 

Fishkin takes special pride in Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch events, take place on Oct. 15-16. Variety features editor Malina Saval will moderate a panel discussion with this year’s class, who include Joel Kim Booster (“Fire Island”), Ximena García Lecuona (“Anything’s Possible”) and Carrie Solomon (Margot Robbie’s “Ocean’s Eleven” prequel). 

Presented since 1978 by the California Film Institute, which Fishkin also founded, Mill Valley keeps its eye trained as much on industry trends as individual achievements. He’ll moderate a State of the Industry panel at which producer Ted Hope (“In the Bedroom”), director Crystal Moselle (“Sofia”) and writer-director and former Mill Valley resident Nikyatu Jusu (“Nanny”) will examine a post-pandemic exhibition landscape in which festivals can complement, and benefit from, the blockbuster films driving the revival of box office revenues. “Festivals are really important in a sense that they’re priming the pump for people to get back in the theaters.” 

Admitting that he’s “excited about the future, but nervous about it, like everybody,” Fishkin looks forward to unveiling a lineup he considers worthy of an anniversary of 45 years. 

“The themes that come out of any given curation can be done premeditated, or just a result of what’s happening, but these are serious films dealing with some of the most important issues of our time. They give us creative stories with strong points of view that stimulate our minds and nurture our spirits, whether from an oral, written or a cinematic tradition. Our common humanity, our hopes, challenges, tragedies and wish for a resurrection is universal — and that’s why I devoted going on five decades to the theatrical aspect of our industry.”