“Holy confusion, Batman.”

This was my best attempt at a cinematic reference as I tried to untangle what’s happening with the Napa Valley Film Festival.

This begins with a press release that arrived from Cinema Napa Valley on Feb. 8 announcing the retirement of Marc and Brenda Lhormer, the dynamic duo who founded and directed the Napa Valley Film Festival.

This would be fine except that back on Saturday, Nov. 3, Cinema Napa Valley, the nonprofit that produces the festival, sent out a release saying this:

The Board of Directors of Cinema Napa Valley (CNV) has announced it is ending its association with employees Marc and Brenda Lhormer and Zin Haze Productions, effective immediately.”

This was startling as the 2018 NVFF was set to begin on Wednesday, Nov. 7. Dave Stoneberg, editor of the St. Helena Star, wrote the story, which included a reaction from the Lhormers: “This move was sudden and without warning and naturally, unexpected.”

Subsequently, community reports came in that the Lhormers were banned from attending their own festival.

In response to questions, however, the board replied that they had no further comments. The Lhormers confimed, “We cheered from the sidelines” as the staff they had trained carried on without them.

Then came the February announcement of the Lhormers’ retirement. “Huh?” As I emailed questions and waited for a reply, I began to feel I’d fallen into a 1930s film noir, maybe “The Maltese Falcon,” (1941) in which the intrepid Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) faces down a motley gang, is all in pursuit of a priceless treasure.

Joel Cairo (unsavory member of the motley gang): I certainly wish you would have invented a more reasonable story. I felt distinctly like an idiot repeating it.

Sam Spade: Don’t worry about the story’s goofiness. A sensible one would have had us all in the cooler.

It was, however, disconcerting to see that on Thursday, Feb. 7, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Ryan Kost, wrote a story titled, “Napa Valley Film Festival announces founders’ exit, for a second time.”

Kost had reached Patrick Davila, chairman of the board of Cinema Napa Valley, evidently with the same questions (“Huh?”). Kost asked about the November reports that had run in the Register as well as the Sonoma Index Tribune, and quoted Davila as saying the November reports were “inaccurate.”


Typically if the Register makes a reporting mistake, we hear almost immediately from someone so we can run a correction. This was the first time in my 34-year career as a journalist that someone had waited three months and then told another newspaper that a story was inaccurate.

Maybe it was not Hollywood I was dealing with, after all, but Washington, D.C. But even in “All the President’s Men,” as Redford and Hoffman, aka Woodward and Bernstein, were on are the trail of a corrupt government, the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee comments on the official response to their stories:

Ben Bradlee: All non-denial denials. They doubt our ancestry, but they don’t say the story isn’t accurate.

I sent off new emails, asking among other things, if from now on did they only intend to talk to the Chronicle?

I got an apology; they had sent me an email on Wednesday but it had apparently gone into cyberspace:

Hi, Sasha,

“I can provide you the following statement regarding your question:

“Whatever issues existed around the name of the festival have been amicable (sic) resolved, and Cinema Napa Valley welcomes the Lhormer’s (sic) support, and congratulates them on starting the next chapter of their lives.” You can attribute that to Patrick Davila, chairman of the Cinema Napa Valley board.”

Here was a clue: The name was the issue. I replied with another email objecting to their throwing Stoneberg under the bus.

Then, the dreaded veil of silence fell. No more replies.

‘All the President’s Men’ (Reporter Woodward making a phone call.)

Bob Woodward: Excuse me, what is your name? I’m Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

Markham: Markham.

Bob Woodward: Markham. Mr. Markham, are you here in connection with the Watergate burglary?

Markham: I’m not here.

At this point, you can do two things: you can throw up your hands and say, they won’t talk, so there’s no story, or you fall back on piecing together what you know. But what is at stake is the reputations of two people who, regardless of what the issues were between them and their board, worked hard over the past eight years to bring something special to the Napa Valley.

In 2009, the Lhormers announced their intention of creating a film festival in Napa. They had previously founded a film festival in Sonoma; they were also the producers of “Bottleshock,” a fictionalized account of the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting.

The late Pierce Carson covered the Napa Valley Film Festival. I knew he liked the Lhormers. He admired their spunk and drive and the bit of tinsel and glamour they were bringing to our little valley. What I knew, judging from the number of emails that arrived from the Lhormers, was that they worked tirelessly and year-round, putting together the five-day festival. And unlike many glitzy events that are staged in the Napa Valley, locals could attend it. You could buy a VIP pass and go to glitzy events, but you could also buy a single ticket to a movie.

They began with a mini launch in 2010; one of the films was “The King’s Speech,” which went on to win Oscars; their opening film for 2018 was “The Green Book,” another Oscar contender. In between, they presented other future Oscar contenders as well as a myriad of unknown independent films. They rolled out red carpets, turned on Hollywood spotlights, brought celebrities to town but they also reached out to students, schools, and local organizations. I heard from locals about it; often they complained that we didn’t write more about the festival; clearly, they loved it.

The Lhormers showed films in all kinds of venues, up and down the valley, including the Gliderport in Calistoga. They staged funny events like a jog with a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who had had started a running club to help recovering addicts, convicts and alcoholics transform their lives. This was the subject of “Skid Row Marathon,” a film from 2017.

It was kind of a people’s film festival that carried on dauntlessly, even when their 2017 festival took place, just a month after the valley had been on fire.

“The Maltese Falcon,” Kasper Gutman (bad guy) to Sam Spade: By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.

In 2018, the Lhormers began to talk about what would happen when they came to the end of their 10-year contract, which would be after the 2019 festival. They admitted that they had some conflicts with their board but said that was not unusual for a nonprofit. Their chief concern was a “succession plan” to ensure the festival would continue after they left, in the same spirit in which they’d founded it — joyful, imaginative and inclusive.

Then came the November debacle.

It has become clear that, for whatever reason, the board prematurely announced the Lhormers’ departure, apparently without realizing fully that the Lhormers owned the one thing that would be necessary to carry on with the 2019 film festival, without the Lhormers: the name, Napa Valley Film Festival.

‘The Maltese Falcon,’ Kasper Gutman: That’s an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgement on both sides. Because, as you know, sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.

Hence, the new announcement without an explanation.

The Lhormers have confirmed that they released the name to the Cinema Napa Valley. Rather than face a protracted legal fight, Brenda Lhormer said, “We wanted to get on with our lives.” This includes producing a new film, “Zoe,” based on a novel, the rights to which they optioned 10 years ago.

Lhormer also said their lawyer had cautioned them against saying anything about the board of Cinema Napa Valley. This might be because if they did, we might get a third press release announcing that the board had fired the Lhormers again. Just saying.

I’ve thrown in the towel on trying to get any more explanations from the board, although I’d still like to know what was inaccurate about Stoneberg’s November story.

The Maltese Falcon: Joel Cairo: Our private conversations have not been such that I am anxious to continue them. Forgive me for speaking so bluntly, but it is the truth.

But since the Lhormers have, at least, talked to us, despite trying circumstances, it seems fitting to let them have the last (non-movie) word:

“Marc and I want to shout out a loud ‘thank you’ to the Napa Valley for all of the support over the many many years to help bring this festival to life. We are proud of the eight-plus years of NVFF and appreciate everyone who participated in any and all ways.”

Kasper Gutman: Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.