The Film Festival Experience

Napa Valley Film Festival Case Study

The film festival experience remains a crucial component of launching films and careers. While it seems like every burg between here and Timbuktu has a festival, it’s worth serious new filmmakers taking the time to apply to the right ones that will have engaged audiences, professional screening environments, meaningful critical reviews and even some acquisitions activity. It’s also worth noting that in an increasingly fragmented distribution world, festivals may actually offer filmmakers their best opportunity to see their movies projected on the big screen with enthusiastic audiences.


So how does a filmmaker pick his or her festival targets? It has a lot to do with content, timing and objectives. The mac-daddy acquisitions festivals have been and remain: Sundance (mid-January), Cannes (mid-May), Toronto (early September). While there are, of course, other highly prestigious film festivals (Berlin in February, Venice in August, Telluride on Labor Day), they tend to be more about celebrations of film than discoveries of new talent and films to be bought. I would argue secondary acquisition festivals include SxSW (March), Tribeca (April), Seattle (May/June), as well as the LA Festival (June) and AFI (November cozied up to the American Film Market). Beyond these festivals, there aren’t a lot of acquisition-heavy festivals in which new films and filmmakers may be discovered.

However, there are many delightful established festivals to attend, including Palm Springs (early January), Santa Barbara (late January), San Francisco (April), Mill Valley (early October), Hamptons (mid-October), along with many others. Additionally, international festivals can be critical to launching films overseas. A small sample of these includes Deauville, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Pusan, Tokyo, London, Vancouver, and Montreal. I have many filmmaker friends who have attended literally dozens of festivals worldwide in order to help launch their films and expose themselves as filmmakers to the rest of the world.

images-10All of which brings me to the new kid on the block, the Napa Valley Film Festival, which just completed its third year in mid-November. Founded in 2010 with an inaugural weekend followed by its first full festival in 2011, I was asked to be on board of trustees by friends and founders Marc Lhormer and Brenda Lhormer (who I’ve known since business and undergraduate days, respectively) and with whom I actively participated in their previous festival in Sonoma, and with whom I produced Bottle Shock in 2007.

After years of developing a little gem of a film festival in Sonoma, Marc and Brenda saw an opportunity to shift one valley to the east and put a festival on the world stage with the brand that is Napa. In addition to their experience with Sonoma, the founders brought with them years of festival attending experience, so it makes sense that the Napa Valley Film Festival has a lot going for it.

In addition to being a world-class destination featuring the world’s best wines and cuisine, Napa is a gorgeous location where hospitality is a priority. Furthermore, the timing has allowed studios and independent releasing labels to showcase their soon-to-be-released Oscar and Spirit contenders. This year included August: Osage County, Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena, Out of the Furnace and more. Additionally, since the festival isn’t hung up on world premiering independent films, they get to cherrypick many of their favorite narrative films and documentaries from other festivals, which are – of course – brand new to everyone attending Napa.

Spread out over 5 days in 4 Napa Valley villages, the festival features 12 screening venues showing 125 movies with hundreds of filmmakers and fans being wined and dined by 50 chefs and 150 wineries. The festival has also attracted all manner of sponsors, including dozens of hotels and restaurants. This year, major non-Napa sponsors included Cadillac, Sony, Intel, Amazon Web Services, Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, Stella Artois, Union Bank, Delta Airlines and several others.

Napa Valley Film Festival

Best of all, the festival features a meaningful experience for newer filmmakers, particularly those who created the top 10 competition dramatic films. These filmmakers are treated to an artist-in-residence program over two days hosted by deeply seasoned filmmakers who can offer expert advice and important industry contacts going forward. Very few other festivals offer anything like it, and certainly fewer still offer the range of amenities provided by Napa.

What I’ve learned in my four years on the board is that putting on a world class film festival is more work than one can imagine, and truly a year-round endeavor. Mobilizing a small staff to engage a larger seasonal staff and then hundreds of volunteers who must graciously handle dozens of patrons, hundreds of passholders, thousands of ticket buyers and then many celebrity guests is no small feat. As the festival matures, its personality and place in the top film festival firmament will crystallize, making it – I hope – one of the world’s top festivals.

For those considering festivals, there are many considerations, so let me recommend a book written by a friend and a colleague. The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide To Film Festivals: Your All Access Pass to Launching Your Film on the Festival Circuit by Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis.

I also want to recommend friend Sydney Levine’s invaluable blog on the international movie business, which includes many features on international film festivals:

Happy holidays and good luck aspiring filmmakers.