"Announcing ourselves," says Marc Lhormer, "is like announcing a baby being born."
Lhormer, with wife Brenda, is co-creator of the Napa Valley Film Festival, slated to arrive in November 2011. By way of announcement, he's drumming up initial buzz for next year's inaugural festival by throwing a launch celebration at various venues in Napa County from Nov. 12 to Nov. 14.
With six films screening during the three-day launch celebration, Lhormer sees this weekend as a "teeny-tiny little taste" of what he anticipates to be a much larger and engrossing film festival. Next year, he hopes to feature both full-length films and shorts for a total of 75 films. "People are looking for something like this," he says.
Lhormer is no stranger to the festival circuit. Near the beginning of the previous decade, he took over the reins of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, which at that time was lacking in attendance and celebrity. The original festival organizers had fallen first into ambivalence and then abandonment. Lhormer seized the opportunity and reorganized the event in 2001, bringing with him marketing skills and a vision for the festival's raison d'être. His efforts paid off handsomely. "The first year, the audience tripled," says Lhormer today. "We ended up building a really phenomenal and beautiful festival."
Lhormer spent seven years as a chief figure of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival up until the production of his own piece of indie filmmaking, Bottle Shock, in 2008. After the promotion and distribution of the film, which focuses on the true tale of homegrown Napa wine competing and defeating Parisian wine in a 1976 blind taste test, Lhormer saw fit to realize his dreams of holding a film festival in the heart of Napa Valley
"We got serious last summer, about a year and a half ago, in 2009," Lhormer says, adding that this film festival has nothing to do with his previous involvement with the Sonoma Valley Film Festival. "This is a clean split," he says. "We're just focusing on creating a brand-new film festival."
St. Helena's Cameo Cinema will have the honor of screening the first official film of the festival. "Overall, the consensus is that this is going to be a wonderful event coming up," says Cathy Buck, proprietor of Cameo Cinema, where luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Redford have been known to show up. "Everyone is looking forward to the what the Napa Valley Film Festival has to offer."
The single-screen, 97-year old Cameo Cinemas this weekend shows John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, Diane Weist and Aaron Eckhart, on Friday, Nov. 12. The film deals with a family's struggle to cope with the loss of their only child, and Buck expects it to be a major attention-grabber. "A lot of these independent films are spectacular," she says.
For Buck, the NVFF is an opportunity not only to attract a wider audience for Napa theaters, but to also bring awareness to local residents of quality films produced outside mainstream Hollywood. She sees the traditional Hollywood system of distribution as difficult for small filmmakers to overcome, and believes film festivals hold the key in helping independent cinema. Like many others, the NVFF plans to bridge the distance between filmmakers and their audience by inviting filmmakers to speak and answer questions at the festival.
"The public benefits from it tenfold," says Buck, "to have an opportunity to meet and greet filmmakers and start following what they are doing."
The festival marks a chance for independent filmmaker Paul Gordon to present his film The Happy Poet at the Napa Valley Opera House for an audience he might not be able to reach otherwise. "Unless you get distribution," explains Gordon, "this is the only way people see your films."
The Happy Poet, produced, written and directed by Gordon on a shoestring budget, tells the story of one man's vision to run an organic sandwich business with little financial backing. Instead, the entrepreneur, played by Gordon himself, is forced to rely completely on raw idealism.
Fittingly, the plot of The Happy Poet mirrors that of Gordon's own experience in the film industry. Before writing the film's script, Gordon had wanted to shoot a much more elaborate, expensive and different film. Unable to secure the proper financing, however, he turned his attention to producing a more lighthearted, humorous tale set in Austin, Texas.
"I just wanted to do something locally that was fun with the resources I had and with my friends who are good actors," says Gordon. "I wrote it really fast and realized that the story of the food stand in the movie is what we've been through trying to make the film. In a lot of ways, making an independent film is very much like starting a small business on your own."
Gordon's film has previously screened at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin. It's also been at festivals in Tokyo, Venice and several other cities throughout America, to warm reception; in fact, it received a standing ovation at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival.
"It's a classic example of a zero-budget independent film," says Lhormer of The Happy Poet. "It shows what you can do with next to no money."
For Gordon, the Napa Valley Film Festival also presents an opportunity to revisit a personal connection. Gordon will appear at the Nov. 13 screening at the Cameo. "I have good friends that live in St. Helena," says Gordon. "Actually, fours years ago I worked at a winery in Napa Valley, and I've been interested in coming back."
Another independent film playing this weekend—and making waves throughout cinematic circles—is Blue Valentine, a story about a young couple's disintegrating marriage, starring Academy Award nominees Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. In early October, the MPAA handed down an NC-17 rating for the film, causing much discussion and anticipation, but what controversy or popularity garnered in recent weeks is of little value to Lhormer.
"We made a decision prior to the rating," says Lhormer, who doesn't see the adults-only rating as a deterrent to screening the film for an audience. "We definitely don't want to shy away from the material. The acting is unbelievably good."
The film looks to have a wider albeit limited release in December, and the Weinstein Company, distributor of Blue Valentine, is set to appeal the MPAA's decision sometime this month. Harvey Weinstein has gone on record to state his hopes of retaining director Derek Cianfrance's unaltered vision of the film after the appeals process. Regardless of the outcome, the NVFF will screen the uncut version of Blue Valentine.
Lhormer speculates that the Napa Valley Film Festival will be no stranger to controversial films, and hopes to showcase storytelling with deep emotional impact. "Every year, we will have films that push the envelope," Lhormer says.
Still, the most personal aspect of Lhormer's involvement with the festival comes from his experience on the other side of the camera. Bottle Shock was independently distributed, and he knows the complexities of creating and marketing an independent film. "We've been through all of it," he says.
With a launch celebration this year and a fully expanded festival in 2011, Lhormer is putting all of his efforts into supporting independent cinema once more. For independent filmmakers, a festival is a chance to share their dream—and for the moviegoing audience, an opportunity to put a human face to strips of film.
"Come get a taste," Lhormer says. "See what we're doing."
The Napa Valley Film Festival launch celebration runs Friday&–Sunday, Nov. 12&–13, at Cameo Cinema (1340 Main St., St. Helena) and the Napa Valley Opera House (1030 Main St., Napa). For complete details and screening times, visit www.napavalleyfilmfest.org.