Scene and Heard: Newport Beach Film Festival

The 13th annual Newport Beach Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, April 26th, bringing seasoned filmmakers and film students alike to the picturesque southern California city for the occasion. Featuring 460 films from over 50 countries, sold out screenings, directing and screenwriting seminars along with parties sponsored by Stella and Absolut, this year marks the biggest festival yet, according to Max Naylor, the 29-year-old Senior Programmer for the Newport Beach Film Festival. 

“The festival is truly a lifestyle festival for the residents of Orange County; it is promoted throughout the year and marks a time when the area comes alive with culture and local participation,” he told us. As the Senior Programmer (and a permanent fixture on the scene throughout the weekend), Naylor, a California native, is in charge of film selection. His advice to young filmmakers wishing to create festival-worthy films? “Don’t follow trends but be aware of them and make films you’d want to watch yourself.”

Thursday, April 26th
The opening night included the world premiere screening of director Bryan Fogel’s comedy Jewtopia, based on the acclaimed play, about a guy who pretends to be Jewish to marry a Jewish girl with the help of his Jewish best friend who is disgruntled with his own very stereotypically Jewish wife. Energy levels ran high outside Edward’s Big Newport Theatre with a line up of filmgoers that spread down the block and resulted in a spillover into a second theatre. Jewtopia stars spotted on the red carpet included Joel David Moore, Ivan Sergei, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Tom Arnold. Once high school bedroom poster staple Jennifer Love Hewitt was sadly absent as were all-star cast mates Nicollette Sheridan, Rita Wilson and Jon Lovitz.

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After the screening, it was a short walk across the street to Fashion Island for the opening night gala presented by Esquire, where the Bloomingdales courtyard of the luxury mall was transformed into the ultimate festival of food, music and networking, with over 32 local restaurants dishing up a selection of savoury eats and a musical performance by Million Dollar Quartet.

Jewtopia lead actors Joel David Moore and Ivan Sergei remained sipping drinks in the VIP tent until the party began to taper out just after 1am.  When asked why YPs should see Jewtopia, Sergei told us, “I think that racial stereotypes and sexism are still really prevalent in our society, even among our generation. However, I’m of the belief that you can laugh at anything if the comedy is done right.”

Friday, April 27th
Friday afternoon was the Filmmaker Networking Event at Triangle Theatre, where YPs from all over North America mingled and promoted their respective films. We asked a few American filmmakers to share their thoughts about Canada and the Canadian film industry in general. It was agreed that Canadian actors are among some of the funniest performers in the world, with names like Dave Foley (who appears in Canadian festival feature Servitude), Jim Carrey and Seth Rogan mentioned. TIFF was widely regarded as one of the biggest and arguably the most infleuntial film festivals. As Naylor stated, “What New Orleans is to Mardi Gras or what Nashville is to country music, Toronto is to film.” The American filmmakers mentioned the draw of filming in Canada thanks to the tax rebate offered with a Canadian co-production as well as the burden of tight shooting restrictions in cities like New York. Elliot Feld, the early thirties California-based writer of festival film General Education, said “I don’t think you necessarily have to leave Toronto for Hollywood right away, you can establish yourself with the opportunities offered there.”

Friday night included the YP-filled collection of short films as part of the Maybe Romantic, Definitely Short and Sweet program, which featured Canadian filmmaker Ashleigh Rains‘ debut film II starring Canadian dance legends Rex Harrington and Evelyn Hart. During a Q and A panel following, the young filmmakers discussed the challenges of getting grants and fundraising, mentioning funding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter along with the importance of trusting your vision as a filmmaker to others involved. The unmistakable raspy voice of Macy Gray turned heads in the theatre with the second question of the evening when she asked what the filmmakers were working on next. Post-panel, Ms. Gray told us it was her first time at the festival, which she called “a good opportunity for young talent to showcase their art to an audience and let people know how good they are; you can’t always make it right to the big screen right away.” Outside the theatre, actress of the short Entranced, Pamela Portnoy (picture a knock out, slightly curvier Kiera Knightly), explained that both the beauty and challenge of a short film is the ability to move audiences and tell a story within the confines of minutes.

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The Newport Lexus dealership was the scene of the Live OC party later that night, which brought out a good-looking crowd of film professionals and suspected dealership-frequenting Newport locals alike. One major difference between TIFF and NBFF is that while the TIFF parties last well into the morning hours with 4am last calls, by 2am Newport virtually shuts down. With the designated after party spot, local restaurant and lounge X (Ten Nightclub) more like a university-style, glow stick-filled meat market than the other civilized film parties, perhaps this was a good thing.

Saturday, April 28th
A hot ticket for the Saturday night was the sold-out Should Have Been Romeo, written by and starring Paul Ben-Victor, which explores the concepts of blood relations and constructed families. Though our scheduled interview with cast member Kelly Osbourne got scratched from the agenda when she didn’t quite make the treck to Newport for the screening (she “flaked out” said a cast mate), we got to chat with Ben-Victor after the film. He tells us that “family is what is in the heart, not necessarily in blood, and that sometimes all you need is right in front of you.” After joking “don’t do it!” when asked about his advice to fellow actors, he said that if you are going to pursue a career in acting, “do it right and whole-heartedly. Pack your car, clear your bank account, pick up and move if you have to.”

Later that evening the Equinox country club-esque fitness centre was transformed into a true indoor/outdoor California-style party hosted by Locale Magazine, complete with an outdoor pool, floating stage and  80s cover band. If we hadn’t seen the plastic surgery overloaded Real Housewives of Orange County types or over-the-top scenesters on the festival circuit so far, this party definitely reassured us they in fact existed (and the former refers to Anaheim as “Anaslime” FYI). A mix of hats, fake hair, sunglasses, short skirts and long legs turned heads in the crowd. All in good spirits, some were there in celebration of the films, others just for the party.

As for us, we were in Newport to profile films made by and featuring some amazing Canadian talent and to interview the Canadian YPs involved. Stay tuned later this week for the low-down on the Canadian films that made their mark at Newport!

Photos courtesy Kris and Richard Quartararo