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Newport Film Fest, Part II

The second gathering opens with a tribute to 'The Sting.' Eight-day lineup includes shorts and 56 features from 17 countries.


While trying to put Orange County on the map of important cinematic gatherings, the organizers of the Newport Beach Film Festival say they are being careful not to get starry-eyed.

The festival's second annual run will take place March 29-April 5 at the Edwards Island Cinemas in Newport Beach. In announcing the selections Monday, executive director Gregg M. Schwenk used terms like "very sensible, manageable growth" and "evolution, not revolution" to describe his hopes for the event.

The eight-day festival will offer 56 feature films, an increase from 45 a year ago. Also on the bill are 14 programs of assorted short films.

Of the features, about half are by foreign filmmakers from 17 countries--among them China, Japan, the Philippines, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Norway, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece and France.

There are 49 features competing for awards; the other seven include three classics, a new Ben Kingsley thriller headed for general release, and a troika of films from China being shown in the United States for the first time.

On March 31, film buffs can attend a day of seven free panel discussions at the Newport Beach Public Library. Scheduled participants, include the screenwriters of "Gladiator" and "The Sting," cinematographers of "Unforgiven," "Chinatown" and "The West Wing" television series and Irvin Kershner, director of "The Empire Strikes Back."


There will also be at least a couple of movie stars at the festival's opening-night screening of "The Sting." Cast members Charles Durning and Sally Kirkland plan to attend and take part in a question-and-answer session after the screening. Schwenk said the tribute to the 1973 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford arose from a chat he had with Kirkland at last year's festival.

Two other films will receive special anniversary tributes: "Zoot Suit" (1981), which starred Edward James Olmos in writer-director Luis Valdez's screen adaptation of his landmark stage play about the unjust prosecution of Chicano gang members in 1940s Los Angeles, and "The French Connection" (1971), with Gene Hackman trying to foil an international heroin-smuggling ring.

Audiences also can get a preview of "Sexy Beast," a British thriller shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival and headed into general release. Times critic Kenneth Turan reported that Kingsley's turn as a "psychotic gangster [who is] all menace, all the time . . . is terrifying enough to forever banish all thoughts of "Gandhi" from your mind."

Tickets for "The Sting," "Zoot Suit," "The French Connection," "Sexy Beast" and one of the Chinese premieres, "Tragedy On and Off the Stage," cost $30 to $75 and include gala receptions with food and drinks and chances to hobnob with movie folk at local restaurants or hotels. All other showings are $5 each.

The festival's budget again will be about $500,000, Schwenk said. Last year, it took $100,000 in cash and an estimated $400,000 worth of donated goods and services to put on the event. About 15,000 to 17,000 people attended in 2000, and Schwenk said the goal is to at least match that this year. Like last year, the festival's leading donors are Newport Beach sports agent Leigh Steinberg and his wife, Lucy, who have given about $40,000, and the Newport Beach city government, which has contributed $30,000. The festival's staff consists of 20 volunteers, including Schwenk, and a paid general manager.


Unlike last year, there will be no special category for Orange County filmmakers. "We were so overwhelmed with the number of [other] submissions," Schwenk said. "We just needed to focus on quality and not play favorites as far as local films." He hopes to reestablish the local category in the future.

For the film industry, studios and distributors scouting properties, Schwenk thinks the festival's main drawing cards are its ritzy, convenient-to-Hollywood location in Newport Beach and its timing at the end of Oscars week.

For Orange County film buffs, he said, it's a chance to see a lot of movies that are unlikely to play here.

And for the artists, it's a chance to be next door to Tinseltown yet have their work play to an audience that isn't made up largely of Hollywood insiders and wannabes.

Said Schwenk: "I think the unique aspect of Newport--and I've heard this from a number of filmmakers--is it draws an audience that is not jaded by the Los Angeles scene. It's the type of audience that filmmakers really want to appeal to. If it does well in Newport, it plays almost anywhere."

* The Newport Beach Film Festival, March 29 to April 5. Opening night showing of "The Sting" at Edwards Newport Cinemas, 300 Newport Center Drive. All other showings at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Drive. Free panel discussions on "The Collaborative Art of Filmmaking," 9 a.m.-4 p.m. March 31 at Newport Beach Public Library, 1000 Avocado Ave. $30 to $75 for five gala screenings and receptions; $5 for regular screenings. (949) 253-2880 or for dates, times and ticket information.

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