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Festival Founder's Dream Follows Script Into Reality

Profile: Jeff Conner wouldn't have been cast in role, but ambitious plot has a happy ending.

March 21, 1996|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Conner's background--attorney, real estate developer, onetime Reagan delegate--wouldn't lead one to predict the latest entry on his list of vocations: film festival founder.

But here it is, tonight's opening of his Newport Beach International Film Festival, a wide-ranging collection of 85 films being shown at six venues over 11 days. And it all sprang from dream to reality in less than one year.

Conner, 36, is a film fan from way back, a former member of the San Francisco Film Society who visits festivals whenever he gets a chance. Last year, when a long-term real estate project began to wind down, he decided to act on his secret wish to start a festival of his own.

Last summer, with longtime friend George White as associate director (White, who has worked in TV and music, has industry savvy that Conner lacked), Conner began assembling a staff and, before he knew it, the festival was taking shape.

Conner notes that Orange County has been the largest film market in the country without its own festival. "Ninety percent of our emphasis is to give Orange County a chance to see these movies," he says. "We want it to be Orange County's film festival."

He also hopes to develop it to a point where the industry sees the festival as a place to find new talent. "A logical goal for the future," he notes, "is to have some kind of a mart or business aspect."

He is modest about his own role in setting up the festival, sharing credit with staff and with his film committee which ranges from a scattering of industry veterans to academics to Laker star Vlade Divac, who will host a charity screening for his Children's Relief Fund.

"The only thing I bring to the table is that I'm a film buff," Conner says. In fact, he also brought organizational skills and energy, not to mention an infusion of his own cash (he won't say how much). Several sponsors have come in with financial assistance and other kinds of help, including publicity.

It remains to be seen whether audiences here will support the kind of offbeat fare offered by a festival of this kind. But Conner's plan is to help establish a Newport Beach Film Society to plan and organize future festivals and other film-related events. His long-term goal, he said, is to realize "the true definition of an international film festival.

"We want the feeling of a festival. We want an Argentine film director talking to a Japanese producer in the lobby, setting up a dinner with someone from the German film industry."

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