Fourteen years ago, a group of movie lovers banded together to organize the first Newport Beach Film Festival. For the opening-night attraction at Fashion Island, they chose "Sunset Blvd.," the 1950 Billy Wilder drama which famously features a faded Hollywood actress snapping, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!"
As co-founder Todd Quartararo fretted outside the Edwards Big Newport 6 theater before showtime, though, he was more concerned about the size of the crowd than the size of the pictures.
"I remember, clear as day, standing at the edge of the red carpet wondering if anyone was going to show up," he said this month in the festival's cramped, bustling office near UC Irvine. "It's actually funny — 15 years later, I still think the same thing. Obviously, we have record crowds and we're bursting at the seams and very excited about that, but I think it helps to stay a little nervous because it keeps you alert and working hard."
That first night, according to Quartararo, "Sunset Blvd." drew a full house, and the 2000 festival went on to show nearly 200 films at three Newport locations. As the festival prepares for its 15th go-round this year, the numbers tell part of the story of its growth: more than 300 films at seven theaters, which now encompass Costa Mesa and Santa Ana as well as the namesake city. Attendance at the festival has grown from around 10,000 in the early years to more than 53,000 in 2013.
This year's festival will run Thursday to May 1, with the lineup ranging from features and documentaries to films by college students. "Lovesick," a new comedy starring Matt LeBlanc and Chevy Chase, will open the festival with a red-carpet premiere at the Big Newport.
As in past years, the program will dip into movie history. Howard Hawks' 1959 Western "Rio Bravo," starring longtime Newport resident John Wayne, will play April 26 Saturday, while the Disney classic "Mary Poppins" will have a 50th-anniversary screening Sunday. The following week will include a tribute to MacGillivray Freeman Films, the Laguna Beach-based studio that has produced more than 30 Imax films.
New to the program is "Women Direct!", a series that spotlights work by female directors. Gregg Schwenk, the festival's CEO and executive director, called the new offering a response to a trend.
"As the festival has always been focused on quality films, the gender of the director has never come into play, but we noticed over the years that many festivals were touting the sheer number of women directors that they were working with, and we began to take a look at our numbers and found them to be quite significant," he said. "And again, it wasn't based on whether or not this was a man or woman; it was based on the quality of the film."
The Newport Beach Film Festival is hardly the only event of its type in Orange County — the SoCal Film Festival in Huntington Beach and the recently launched Irvine International Film Festival are a short drive away. But for Orange County film commissioner Janice Arrington, the Newport festival dwarfs all others in terms of size and influence.
"It is our biggest entertainment-related event that we do in the county," said Arrington, a longtime board member of the Newport festival. "I'm always happy to say we refer to it as the Newport Beach Film Festival, but I like to call it the Orange County Film Festival as well. We have participants from all the local colleges and universities and people who attend from all our various cities."
Before the festival became an institution in Orange County, it began as a substitute. In 1999 the founder of the Newport Beach International Film Festival, which had run for four years, declared bankruptcy and a group of community members, including Quartararo and Schwenk, banded together to keep the concept afloat. With financial support from the city and others, the festival resumed in March 2000.
Five years later, the festival opened with Paul Haggis' race drama "Crash," which went on to beat "Brokeback Mountain" for best picture in one of the most controversial Oscar wins of recent years. For the Newport event, though, it proved to be a breakthrough — Quartararo pinpoints it as the moment that most improved the festival's reputation among distributors.
"That was really a game-changer for us, for sure," he said.
In terms of industry influence, Newport may not rank in a league yet with the elite festivals such as Sundance or Toronto, but a brief glance at the schedule shows its appeal for local film schools: This year's lineup includes showcases for Chapman University, UCLA, USC, Cal State Long Beach and others.
William McDonald, the chair of the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA, said a spot at Newport is a coveted prize for his students. This year's program features five UCLA films, which will screen on Saturday afternoon.
"The students very happily have their films considered, and when we do notify them that their film has been selected to screen at the Newport film festival, they are very excited to be a part of that, because they know the reputation of the festival being a warm, welcoming festival," McDonald said. "And the other part is, it's close."
Newport Beach Film Festival
When: Thursday to May 1
Regency Lido Theatre, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach
Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa
Island Cinema 7, 327 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
Edwards Big Newport 6, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
Regency South Coast Village, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana
Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
The Studio at Sage Hill, 20402 Newport Coast Road, Newport Beach
Tickets: Prices vary
Information: (949) 253-2880 or http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com