Let the Screenings Begin


Newport Beach International Film Festival co-founder Jeffrey S. Conner has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

A satirical trailer for the third annual festival--opening today with Disney's not-yet-released "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit," starring Joe Mantegna and Edward James Olmos with a cameo by Sid Caesar)--takes a poke at the arty pretension of film festivals and independent filmmakers eager to pass for intellectuals.

"The interesting thing," said executive director Conner, a 38-year-old attorney and film buff who founded the festival with creative director Michelle M. Parsons, "is that for the last three years I've passed judgment on films. Now the tables are turned.

"Everybody else can pass judgment on us, because this year for the first time we've put something of our own up on the screen," he added in a recent interview at his office here.

The black-and-white trailer stars top Hollywood voice-over artist Rob Paulsen as an absurdly self-important European director ("The Attack of the 50-Foot Zombie Hula Girls"). He complains in an unctuous accent--think KCRW's unintelligible art critic Edward Goldman--that the Newport B-e-e-e-sh Fill-um Festiv-a-a-l has declined to screen his latest opus, "Dat Darned Katzenberg."

The 11-day festival will screen more than 100 films--75 of feature length--from more than 30 countries, through April 5 (see schedule in special pullout insert), and will award juried prizes to competition entries.

Perhaps more important than turning the tables on Conner as an upstart arbiter of taste, the trailer--which is funny, on-target and slick, but not too slick--indicates both the local and national ambitions of a young festival that seems to be an increasingly attractive event for filmmakers and audiences alike.

Conner said a 90-second version of the trailer--made for the festival by Glen Miller Film Assn., also based here--is screening at several local movie houses, primarily at festival venues, which are in and around this coastal city and in Orange.

He said a 60-second version is being broadcast on local cable systems such as Cox, Comcast and Media One and nationwide on the Independent Film Channel (12 million subscribers and a key festival sponsor) and the Bravo channel (about 35 million subscribers).

"We're learning how to get the word out, and we've got some great partnerships," Conner said. (The Times Orange County is among the festival's corporate sponsors.) He added that the festival's estimated budget of about $150,000 (and possibly double that in contributed services) has already shown considerable growth.

In 1996, the festival's first year, about 70 films were selected for screening from about 200 candidates, he said. This year's 107 selections, which include a special focus on Latino and Asian films, were winnowed from more than 550 entries. The screenings will also showcase animated movies, documentaries and 16-millimeter student films.

"We don't have to beat the bushes the way we used to," Conner said. "We're getting to a pretty high volume compared with the average festival. But volume isn't always the key to quality. The production values of the films have definitely changed."

He noted that the filmmakers, "instead of just having a passion or a dream, a personal story that is never expected to earn back their investment, are definitely looking at the bottom line now." They're still passionate, he said, "but getting their films screened appropriately and getting distributors have become extremely important to them."

One tangible sign, which surprised him, Conner said, is that at least six filmmakers flew here a month or so ago to look at the festival venues: Edwards Newport Stadium and Edwards Island Cinemas, both at Fashion Island, the Orange County Museum of Art, also in Newport Beach, Edwards Town Center in Costa Mesa, Edwards Lido at Balboa, Captain Blood's Village Theatres in Orange and the UC Irvine Film and Video Center.

"They eyeballed everything," Conner said. "They even looked at the area where they'll be giving their interviews. They've arranged their own publicity. They've gone to the restaurants around here and said, 'Can I get a deal on hors d'oeuvres for my post-screening party?'

"They're giving us press kits and videocassettes. They're writing us checks for things they want us to do for them, which is very nice," he said. "All of this takes a lot of financial and logistical responsibility off us."

At large prestige festivals, such as those in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, New York and Toronto, the studios finance their parties and publicity; the festivals finance only their own publicity events.

The Newport festival has a long way to go as a significant player even in the minor leagues. It operates with a staff of unpaid volunteers--Conner and Parsons included--who are already stretched thin. The last two festivals experienced logistical problems: largely delayed screenings, unscheduled films substituting for scheduled films (when prints of the announced film did not arrive).

The festival is reaching a larger audience. Conner said about 12,000 filmgoers bought tickets to the screenings last year. "If we get 15,000 to 20,000 this year, I wouldn't be surprised," he added. "Our budget for advertising is three times what it was last year."

Conner would not give precise figures, but admitted, "It's all we can handle to put this festival on." And, he added, two years of hard-won experience have paid off.

"We've learned many lessons. This year we've been able to pay more attention to things that escaped us earlier. We're much more organized, and we're trying to make the festival more user-friendly."

A major new amenity for participating filmmakers and filmgoers, he said, will be the CineCafe, a tented area on the grounds of the Marriott in Fashion Island. Coffee and light snacks will be served daily, 9 a.m.-midnight, free to holders of movie tickets or ticket stubs.

All filmmaker interviews will be held at the CineCafe, Conner added, and they and the public will be encouraged to meet and mingle. Posters, programs, seminars, autograph sessions, script readings and other free events also will be held there.

This year, too, organizers will try to make the festival user-friendly for Hollywood producers, who rarely come to the county for individual screenings or, for that matter, to see highly praised theatrical productions that show promise as a film property. They usually prefer to take in screenings or theater productions during a long weekend in San Diego, despite its greater distance from Hollywood.

"We're telling producers that if there's a movie they want to see," Conner explained, "we'll pick them up by limo, give them tickets and send them home by limo. We're finding the studios are very appreciative of this. We're doing it for the festival, of course, but also for the filmmakers." (They are asked to share the expense with the festival.)

"As the Hollywood studios look to their bottom line," Conner continued, "they're not as interested as they used to be in sending 30 people to Cannes and paying a $1,000 a night for two weeks. We're hoping that our services and our proximity to Hollywood will work to our advantage."

The festival's next big step, Conner says, will be to hire a professional film scholar who has expertise in festival management and film history, someone with contacts in the movie industry here and in foreign markets, and with young filmmakers.

"I have seen lots of movies. My first job when I was 16 was working at a movie theater. They had 'Taxi Driver,' which was the first big film I ever saw that I believed was really good," he said. "I have my tastes, but I'm not an expert."

Among his favorite movies are "Chariots of Fire," "Das Boot," "Fargo" and others by Joel and Ethan Coen, plus films by John Sayles and Sydney Pollack. He calls Pollack's "Jeremiah Johnson" one of the great underrated films.

In the meantime, Conner hopes that the festival's box-office revenues will one day exceed the cost of putting on the screenings.

"Just to do this festival properly," he said, "with office space, telephones, salaried staffers, advertising and the rest, we need a basic cash budget of probably $250,000 to $300,000. We're maybe halfway there."

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