More than three decades before opening night of the 13th annual Newport Beach Film Festival at Edwards Big Newport, festival co-founder Todd Quartararo sat in the same packed theater, watching "Star Wars."
"It was incredible — here is a film that changed the landscape of filmmaking," he recalled of the experience back in 1977.
That palpable excitement of a full theater — more than 1,100 seats full — will be present again at Thursday night's world premiere of "Jewtopia."
The 7:30 p.m. screening of the feature film — starring Ivan Sergei, Joel David Moore and Jennifer Love Hewitt — will officially open the 2012 festival, which will run through May 3. The Daily Pilot is a sponsor.
With a sold-out opening-night crowd, high-profile celebrities, filmmakers and this year's addition of the Port Theater and Island Cinema as venues, the festival is expected to shatter last year's record attendance of 52,000.
But it wasn't always so successful.
When Quartararo and co-founder Gregg Schwenk launched the first Newport Beach Film Festival in 2000, they staged it in the ballroom of the Newport Beach Marriott hotel. The first festival attracted 12,000 to 15,000 attendees.
"I remember standing out front on opening night and wondering if anyone was going to show up," Quartararo said with a laugh.
To date, about 4,000 films have been screened through the festival or its partner organizations: the Orange County Film Society, Cinema Orange at the Orange County Museum of Art, Movie Mondays at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and Cinema Sage Hill.
"They have a very clear and multiplying passion for what they do," Gary Sherwin, chief executive of Visit Newport Inc., said of the festival's founders. "What they do is see themselves as custodians of a very valuable asset in the city."
Quartararo and Schwenk launched the Film Society in 2006 after festival attendance rose to more than 30,000 in 2005.
The co-founders aimed to bring the art of film to more than main circuit festival patrons and do it year-round.
"Film is the medium most accessible and readily accepted by the greatest segment of the population," Schwenk said. "Sadly, no one really asks, 'What is your favorite book?' People ask, 'What is your favorite movie?'"
The organization hosted a screening on March 20 of"Bully"and a screening on April 10 of"The Lucky One"— 10 days before the romanticdrama'srelease date. Both of the screenings were at the Regency Lido Theatre.
"Oftentimes, you're seeing films before anyone knows about them," Quartararo said of the Film Society. "You're really discovering a gem that may go on to be a hit on the international stage."
For an annual membership of $99, members can access more than a dozen films — often before they're shown in theaters or with after-screening interviews with film directors and cast — and other events.
Among the films that the Film Society screened last year were"The Artist,"which won this year's Oscar for Best Picture, Actor and Director,"The Help,""Crazy, Stupid, Love,""Contagion,""Tyrannosaur"and"Dolphin Tale."
There are also screenings of already-released films followed by discussions with filmmakers. In December 2011, the society screened "The King's Speech,"the film that went on to win the Best Picture honors at last year's Academy Awards. An interview with screenwriter David Seidler followed the Dec. 14, 2010, screening at the Lido.
The Lido will also be the venue on the evening of May 3 for the world premiere for "Shanghai Calling," which will close out this year's film festival. The feature film stars Alan Ruck, Bill Paxton, Daniel Henney, Eliza Coupe, Geng Le and Zhu Zhu.
"They're almost on a crusade, or a mission, to make the event better than the year before and almost single-mindedly go about it," Sherwin said of the duo of Schwenk and Quartararo. "I'm amazed. Not a lot of people would volunteer for that unless there was some sort of intrinsic reward."
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