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Napa goes big right out of film fest gate

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Executive director Marc Lhormer likens it to planning 100 weddings on the same weekend.

“Ambitious” is not a big enough word to describe the 2011 Napa Valley Film Festival.

After whetting local appetites through a successful soft launch last year, 91 films are now listed in the 2011 Napa Valley Film Festival program guide.

Those films — many of them short — will be played on 12 screens throughout the Napa Valley, including screenings in Calistoga, Yountville, St. Helena and the city of Napa.

It promises to be a very big event. And, Napa will hope, a successful one.

And in order for it to be a success, Napans will have to be involved.

Competition in the film festival world is intense. Lhormer, who with his wife Brenda spent seven years heading the Sonoma film festival, counts 60 film events in the Bay Area alone.

The need to carve out a niche in that well-saturated market may have been the impetus behind hosting so many films and so many special events in four different communities right from the start.

Lhormer, however, said the growth was more organic. Each of the four communities hosting events from Nov. 9-13 wanted the festival to start in their town, he said, so the decision was made to make the festival (almost) valley-wide. The film list ballooned, Lhormer said, through the relationships that he and his wife have made in the industry in seven years in Sonoma. 

“So many films are coming to us from all these different places,” Lhormer said. “So it’s like, ‘Wow! Look at this great documentary. We’ve got to include that. Look at this amazing feature. Look at these amazing shorts from Romania, we need to include them.’

“We intended to have a much smaller, more contained program the first year — maybe 60 or so films — and it just grew on us.”

In addition to the films, special events line the schedule throughout the weekend, including a tribute night at the Lincoln Theater on Saturday, Nov. 12, a handful of VIP receptions, after-parties and dinners, an awards ceremony, several wrap parties and, of course, the obligatory wine tastings and food pairings that dot the large festival footprint.

It is a very big event. Bigger than its reputation, which creates the need for a substantial local audience.

About 60 percent of ticket buyers to the Sonoma festival come from the Bay Area, according to festival representative Ginny Kreiger.

With every new film, venue or event, the stakes get raised.

According to tax filings, the Sonoma film festival lost close to $200,000 in the 2008 and 2009 events. The Lhormers left in April 2008.

But that festival, which included “up and down” years during their tenure, turned a $132,000 loss on it's 2009 990 filing into an $11,000 surplus the next year, according to tax records, and has found success since thanks in large part to a $100,000 grant, Kreiger said.

Lhormer stressed that same need to rely on local patronage rather than corporate sponsorships in order to build a festival capable of lasting decades. Corporations, he said, are less likely to stick it out for the long haul.

Without giving specifics, he estimated this year’s festival budget to be under $1 million but compared the event’s scale to that of the Mill Valley Film Festival, which has an annual budget over $3 million. 

It being year one, Napa’s event may not have the industry pull to attract A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney or Clint Eastwood — all of whom have films that will be shown at the festival. Lhormer said the staff is still working the phones in the hope of attracting some big names.

What the festival does have is local buzz, and with it, local volunteers. Lhormer said 450 volunteers are being trained right now and the event staff itself has grown to 30 from its core group of eight. The assistance of established local nonprofits like the Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Valley Destination Council and Downtown Business Association have also helped coordinate winery events and hotel arrangements.

Ticket packages range from $2,500 patron-level passes to $10 individual film “rush” line tickets. There are $75 day passes and a festival pass for $245, which has a $50 locals discount to reduce it to $195.

The aggressive four-community approach makes community participation essential. It was there — at least in Napa — last year for the mini-festival, as the event helped the organization end the year with a $32,000 surplus.

With hope, St. Helena, Yountville and Calistoga will join the party this year (and American Canyon will get invited next year).

Everyone in the valley would benefit from the successful launch of a new Napa Valley film tradition.

CORRECTION: This editorial has been changed since its original posting.

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