When the Newport Beach Film Festival started in 1999, its office was a little bigger than a family room, with tremendous sound effects coming live from nearby John Wayne Airport.
In its early days, the fest had emerged humbly from the ashes of the Newport Beach International Film Festival, whose founder filed for bankruptcy. During the first year of the festival, 2000, organizers screened about 120 films and attracted approximately 12,000 attendees.
During the off-season, a dedicated group of festival volunteers would hit the nationwide festival circuit and view films. They’d try to convince moviemakers to show their creations here.
“People would laugh,” said Todd Quartararo, co-founder of the Newport Beach Film Festival and director of marketing since the beginning. “‘Where’s Newport Beach?’ they’d ask. ‘You mean Newport, Rhode Island?’ ”
They’re not asking that anymore.
The Newport Beach Film Festival has blossomed to become one of the biggest film festivals on the West Coast and a social and cultural event in Orange County, with dozens of businesses and nonprofit organizations involved. Students from local universities also screen their films in collegiate programs.
Every late April, tens of thousands of filmmakers, producers, actors and Southern California residents converge on Newport to watch movies, walk red carpets, mingle with celebrities, meet friends and enjoy culinary creations and libations from local restaurants and eateries.
“We’ve become one of the leading film festivals in the nation,” Quartararo said. “It puts you in a different world. We’re not just a community event anymore.”
The 20th anniversary Newport Beach Film Festival starts April 25 and runs through May 2. The eight-day festival will showcase more than 350 films from more than 50 countries. About 55,000 people are expected to attend.
The festival will feature world and U.S. premieres, plus a free seminar series on April 27.
“I think it’s exciting we made it to 20 years,” said Riki Kucheck, the festival director who’s been with the fest for 18 years. “I would have never imagined. Maybe in my hopes and dreams, but I really didn’t think it was going to happen.”
She said that they have gained more respect and recognition.
“Now we can bring in the quality,” she said. “Now I get calls and people coming to me. They want to premiere their things at our festival.”
Over the past two decades, there have been many memorable moments, like the time comedian Andy Dick exposed himself and urinated on a festival booth in 2011. But many point to 2005, when NBFF opened with the U.S. premiere of “Crash.” That L.A.-based drama exploring race relations went on to win the Academy Awards for best picture and best original screenplay.
Hundreds of luminaries and celebrities have traipsed through the festival, such as Peter Fonda, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Katherine Heigl, Kate Beckinsale and many others.
NBFF co-founder and CEO Gregg Schwenk came from a mergers and acquisitions background. He and Quartararo have gotten dozens of partners and sponsors on board, optimizing synergies and relationships with already existing communities.
“One of the things we’ve done at the festival is build out verticals within the festival,” said Schwenk, who’s also the executive director of NBFF. “Our environmental, our architecture and design program, action sports, music and culinary program have become important pillars within the greater lineup of features and shorts.”
This year’s opening film is the West Coast premiere of “Luce,” a drama starring Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Tim Roth. “Luce” portrays a former child soldier from Africa, adopted by Caucasian parents and naturalized in America. He becomes a successful athlete and a top student in his suburban Virginia high school, but runs into trouble when a teacher discovers his disconcerting political views in a homework assignment.
After the screening, the festival will host an opening night gala at Fashion Island, with samples from 30 of Orange County’s premier restaurants, a performance by local band Side Deal, DJs and a hosted bar.
On May 2, the festival will close with the world premiere of “Part of Water,” a documentary based on lifeguard Ben Carlson, who died in 2014 while trying to save a drowning swimmer in Newport Beach. The film is directed by Tim Burnham and Jack Murgatroyd.
A statue near the Newport pier is dedicated to Carlson’s memory, and the lifeguard headquarters is named after him.
Other highlights include the world premiere of “The Tony Alva Story,” presented by Vans, at 8:15 p.m. April 27 at the Lido Theater; Friday and Saturday spotlight films; Irish spotlights “Metal Heart,” “The Belly of the Whale” and “Rosie” on April 28; a host of Latin American films on April 29; European spotlight films on April 30; and Pacific Rim films from Japan, Korea, China, Australia on May 1.
Question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers will follow many films, and receptions and galas are planned every night.
A key reason for the success of the festival is its crew of volunteers. A core group, including festival director Kucheck; Leslie Feibleman, director of special programs; Dennis Baker, director of shorts; Karen Adams, administration director; and Megan McGarvey, ticketing director, have worked year after year, to make the festival a seamless experience.
Others, such as Sarah Sleeger, director of programming, and Matt Keyser, programming coordinator, receive small stipends for putting in hundreds of hours vetting films and organizing logistics, such as filmmaker visits.
Altogether, the festival relies on a staff of 25 people and about 700 volunteers.
“It takes a very dedicated team who are respectful of our filmmakers and giving of their time and talent in an unparalleled way,” Schwenk said. “They are exceptionally dedicated to our craft.”
Schwenk emphasizes that this 20th anniversary festival is definitely the time to attend, for those who haven’t been in a few years or have never been to NBFF. But he still has an eye on the future.
“We’re already planning for 2020,” he said.
IF YOU GO
What: 20th Newport Beach Film Festival
When: April 25-May 2
Where: Various locations, including Edwards Big Newport, Regency Lido Theater, the Lot at Fashion Island and Starlight Triangle Square Cinemas in Costa Mesa
Cost: Opening night screening and gala is $225, $175 for gala only; closing night film and celebration is $95; passes range from $225-$750; individual tickets range from $5-$45
Information: (949) 253-2880 or newportbeachfilmfest.com