After a year’s absence in participating in the Napa Valley Film Festival, Calistoga will be the site of the first NVFF drive-in, with parking for 100 cars.

Marc and Brenda Lhormer, film festival co-founders, recently spoke about their plans for this year’s event, which will take place Nov. 7-11. The drive-in will be located at the Napa County Fairgrounds in an open-sided building that is covered with a roof. A huge, 56-foot-wide pop-up inflatable screen will be brought in. For sound, people will tune to a certain frequency on their car’s radios. Two shows a night, at 5:30 and 8:30, are planned.

The Lhormers and their full-time core team of a dozen people still have to figure out how RSVPs will be handled – you can’t just show up in your vehicle and expect to get a parking spot. They also will figure out the concessions and wine tastings, adding that a Calistoga winery wants to pour its wines at that venue.

Four months before the start of the Napa Valley Film Festival, the Lhormers are in the production mode. “We’re trying to make sure everything is locked up,” Brenda said.

Calistoga Gliderport wine pavilion NVFF 2016

In 2016, a volunteer and guests of Napa Valley Film Festival enjoy a laugh at the wine pavilion located at the Calistoga Gliderport, with rail cars at the Depot as a backdrop.

Even so, they are budgeting for the event from 2019 through 2021. “We have to think three years ahead,” she added.

When the Lhormers spoke to the St. Helena Star’s editorial board on June 29, Brenda said they are “working on our succession plan. We’re not going to be around for very much longer.” When pressed if it was going to be one year, three years or five years, she responded, “You’ll know soon, we will announce it very soon.” She added that she and Mark hope the festival retains a “feeling of community, which is very important to us. I hope that is always part of the experience.”

Screening venues

In addition to the drive-in at the Napa County Fairgrounds, the NVFF will show some 100 documentaries and narratives in nine other venues in Napa, Yountville and St. Helena.

Napa locations include the JaM Cellars Ballroom at the Napa Valley Opera House, Uptown Theatre and the second-floor ballroom at the Archer Hotel, since the Copia theater at the CIA was already booked. Additionally, the Feast It Forward building is the site for the box office, culinary demonstrations and wine- and music-themed afternoons called “Intermissions.” The Westin Verasa Napa will host panel discussions and VIP check-in and serve as festival headquarters.

Tapper Dan

In 2016, Tapper Dan tapped and sang while Napa Valley Film Festival attendees tasted wines from the St. Helena appellation and strolled about admiring local artisan goods feature at Farmstead.

The Lincoln Theater, with its 1,200 seats, will be the only screening venue in Yountville, and Brenda added, “There’s more activity in St. Helena than ever before.”

Films will be shown at the historic, single-screen, 140-seat Cameo Cinema; the Native Sons Hall, Charles Krug Winery and new this year is an event barn at Las Alcobas. The Farmstead continues as the box office, a screening room, as well as hosting an afternoon wine tasting, branded as “Intermissions” featuring wines from St. Helena. On the weekend, Brenda said, “We actually expand the whole intermission concept into an artisan pavilion, bringing in local artisans and craftsmen to offer their wares. It is a perfect location.”

Additionally, special events are planned each night, including celebrity tributes, awards and gala celebrations and a vintner circle dinner night.

‘No earthquakes, no fires’

“This year, I’m hoping there are no earthquakes and no fires,” Brenda said. “Last year was phenomenal but three and a half weeks before the festival, the fires erupted and it severely hurt attendance. Last year was just an amazing year, but it was very heavily local. A lot of people coming from out of town canceled their hotel reservations and their passes,” she added.

Marc corrected his wife, saying, “I don’t think that’s quite accurate. We heard from our hotel partners that many people were canceling their plans, except those with film festival passes. As soon as they heard the festival was happening, these folks were coming and we were getting a lot of gratitude.”

He added, “Attendance was down 15 percent, which was largely from the people making plans to come in the last four to six weeks before the festival. Those people were looking at the images on the television.”

Cameo Cinema, Napa Valley Film Festival 2017

St. Helena's iconic Cameo Cinema was one of five Upvalley locations to show the films of the Napa Valley Film Festival last year.

Attendance at film festivals is not counted by how many people attend the festival, but instead by how many films each person sees, Marc said. In 2016, the total was 50,000 during the week-long festival. Last year, the estimate was 42,500, or about 11,000 people.

“We could easily get 50,000 people spread throughout the valley,” Marc said, and since everyone is clustered in small venues, like the Cameo with its 140 seats, the impact is small. “The biggest venue is the Lincoln Theater with its 1,200 seats, but that’s nothing like, say a Bottlerock, where you’ve got 35,000 people in a pen. All in one place. Film festivals are very different animals with lots and lots of different venues with relatively small numbers at each venue at each time.”

Starting over each year

Since the Napa Valley Film Festival is run as a nonprofit, each year the Lhormers raise millions of dollars and then spend it. “We’ve got to start over,” Marc said.

In 2017, it cost nearly $6 million to stage the Napa Valley Film Festival, almost $3 million in cash and another $3 million in in-kind donations. Marc said, “The film festival is a very difficult business.”

Brenda agreed, “Yeah it is. It is a challenge, more than anyone knows. We don’t have big pockets. We’re Brenda and Marc Lhormer bootstrapping this with our own cash and our own money for the first few years. You’ve got to love it, because you’re not doing it for the money.”

Even so, last year, they gave $11,000 to fire relief and one of their corporate partners, Lexus, added $25,000.

Staffing the NVFF

The permanent core of the Napa Valley Film Festival is about a dozen people, Brenda said. At this time of year, eight assistants will be added to bring the number to 20. By October, that number will have grown to 40 and by Nov. 1, it will be 65 people and by the time the film festival begins, the number is 80 staffers and between 400 and 450 volunteers. After Nov. 11, when the festival ends, it will go back down to a dozen people.

Most of the volunteers are local residents, but the staffers are what Brenda calls “festival gypsies.” They are from out of town and travel from film festival to film festival throughout the year, working three or four in a year’s time.

“Our travel director started working Sundance in 1990, working directly with Robert Redford,” Brenda said. “She comes back to us on Sept. 10 and she starts booking travel and rooms for the celebrities. It’s really nice to have that consistency from year to year. Otherwise, we could not do this.”

The Lhormers founded the festival in 2009 and presented the first NVFF in 2011. As well as co-founders, Marc is the executive and artistic director and Brenda is co-director. Before that, the Lhormers ran the Sonoma Valley Film Festival for seven years, from 2001 to 2008.

Brenda graduated from Stanford University in 1983 and worked in marketing and communications; Marc earned his MBA from Stanford in 1986. He was in operations and entrepreneurship when the two met in 1987. They married in 1991.

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star, The Weekly Calistogan and st