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20th Newport Beach Film Festival kicks off with red carpet before opening film ‘Luce’

“It’s unbelievable, I’m thrilled. I can’t believe we’re here at this point,” said Todd Quartararo, speaking from the red carpet on opening night Thursday at the Newport Beach Film Festival. “It seems like just yesterday when we were starting out this festival and hoping that it would catch on.”

The NBFF, which Quartararo co-founded with Gregg Schwenk in 2000, is now in its 20th year and larger than ever.

From its humble beginnings in a 500-square-foot office, the festival has grown to attract more than 55,000 visitors. The festival runs through May 2 and showcases over 350 studio and indie films from more than 50 countries.

Numerous celebrities have graced the festival’s red carpet over the years, but this year, the opening-night spotlight belonged to up-and-coming actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. He stars in the title role of “Luce,” which was the festival’s opening-night film at the Edwards Big Newport 1.

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“The opening film kind of kicks off the festival, so it kind of gets everyone’s gears going and their creative juices happening,” Harrison said. “I’m honored that we get to celebrate ‘Luce’ tonight and open the festival with it.”

Harrison’s nuanced performance in “Luce” garnered the festival’s Rising Star Award.

More than 1,100 people attended the premiere of “Luce,” a racial drama, thriller and Sundance hit. “Luce” tells the story of a former child soldier from Eritrea, adopted by white parents and naturalized in America. Though he becomes a star student and athlete at his Virginia high school, his status is threatened when a teacher is alarmed by his political views in a homework assignment. “Luce” also stars Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Tim Roth.

“It definitely challenges us to examine the relationships between our youth and people from the across the country and how America kind of affects us,” Harrison said, “and what that means to the new generation.”

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Following the screening, an estimated 3,000 people attended the Opening Night Gala at Fashion Island — “Orange County’s largest party” in Quartararo’s words.

Presented by Pacific Sales and sponsored in part by Tito’s Vodka, the gala featured culinary tastings from 30 of Orange County’s premiere restaurants and a special performance from Newport rock band Side Deal.

“We’re exceptionally proud,” Gregg Schwenk, CEO and co-founder of the NBFF said. “We look at what we’ve done over the last two decades, being a festival where locals and filmmakers from around the world can mix and mingle and really experience great cinema.”

“This festival really helped put Orange County as a filming entity on the map,” Orange County film commissioner Janice Arrington said. “We always had our lovely and scenic locations, and buildings they wanted to put in feature films, but [NBFF] also made us more of a home for filmmakers. And that of course brings good economic development, because for everything we film here, or for our event at the film festival, we’re generating a lot of economy around the community.”

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