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Show and Tell

Newport Beach Film Festival Screens Obscure Movies With Sleeper Potential Along With Major Works From Yesteryear


The chief movie scouts for the Newport Beach Film Festival risked severe eye strain while sitting through hundreds of pictures over the last five months.

Some they saw at prestigious cinematic gatherings in London, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Toronto and Sundance in Utah. More flickered across their own living-room screens on videotape.

Now, with the lineup of 56 features and more than 100 shorts chosen and announced and Thursday's opening of the eight-day event at Fashion Island approaching, it was time to risk severe back strain.

A big rig was parked on the street outside the office building near John Wayne Airport where the fledgling festival occupies rent-free digs. Its load: 125 boxes containing some 10,000 glossy, souvenir programs.

Amy N. Osajima, the general manager and only paid staffer, announced that all hands were needed to form a box brigade to haul the cargo from street to office. When the workers had finished, their modest, sparsely furnished office suite was packed with programs.

Now festival organizers' hopes ride on packing theaters with film buffs willing to take a chance on movies that the general public has never heard of, made by directors and actors who are by and large obscure figures trying to emerge from the 17 foreign countries represented in the festival, and from the deep grass-roots of American independent filmmaking.

This is the second year for the reincarnation of the Newport Beach Film Festival. The first festival ran for four years before its founder, Jeffrey S. Connor, went bankrupt.

Gregg M. Schwenk, a local mergers and acquisitions executive who had done volunteer work on the initial festival, stepped in to keep it going.

"Even when it went through bankruptcy, I felt the idea made a great deal of business sense," Schwenk said. "Orange County has one of the largest film-going audiences in the United States and its proximity to Hollywood makes it a perfect location for a top-tier film festival."

About 15,000 tickets were sold last year, and another 2,000 or so attendees came as guests and participants, said Todd Quartararo, the festival's marketing director. He thinks that 20,000 paid is a reachable, if "lofty" goal for this year's event.

There are some well-known films at the festival, but they come at a premium: $30 to $75, with after-show dinner and festivities included. These shows include the opening-night screening of "The Sting," with several cast members scheduled to attend (but not stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford).

Other galas are built around anniversary showings of "Zoot Suit" (1981) and "The French Connection" (1971), as well as a preview of "Sexy Beast," a new Ben Kingsley thriller soon to go into general release, and "Tragedy On and Off the Stage," one of three films in the festival sent by the People's Republic of China for their U.S. premieres.

Some of the general screenings have familiar faces--James Earl Jones, Lynn Redgrave and Margot Kidder are in "The Annihilation of Fish." "Wild Side" features Christopher Walken, Anne Heche and Joan Chen. And Gabriel Byrne stars in the Italian film, "Making Love."

"Mambo Cafe" features Mexican singer and soap star Thalia, along with Paul Rodriguez and Danny Aiello. "Sex, Shame and Tears" comes billed as "the most successful domestic film ever in the history of Mexican cinema," according to the festival program.

But by and large, the event spotlights artists trying to buck cinema's prevailing current as a star-driven, celebrity-fueled, big-bucks business. "Movies made with passion. Not money," is the festival's advertising slogan.

"You get to see films you may never see [otherwise], and interact with the cast and crew," said Quartararo. A main selling point of the festival is the question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers that follow many of the screenings.

The festival gears itself to two constituencies, Quartararo said. The galas seek to entice the high rollers who like cultural events with a social component.

The general pitch is to movie-lovers seeking something new, adventurous and different.

Programming directors Marjoe Aguiling and Alex Melli, both young, aspiring filmmakers, hope the marketing gambits--including a humorous spoof of infomercials running on a few Edwards Cinemas screens around the county--entice filmgoers to sample a morsel or two of what, for them, has been a gluttonous diet.

Aguiling, a graduating senior in Chapman University's film program, was in charge of choosing features. He saw hundreds of them over the past five months.

He went to the London Film Festival "on my own dime" and saw 36 pictures in two weeks. He went to the Palm Springs Film Festival and saw 28 more in about a week.

"My record is four in a row," he said.

"I just love watching movies," said Melli, a Laguna Beach resident who was in charge of picking short films. "You have an instant gut reaction" as to whether a submission makes the cut.

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