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Film Festival Has a Little Swagger

The curtain goes up tonight in Newport, where last year's `Crash' got its U.S. premiere. Organizers say the industry is taking notice.

April 20, 2006|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

It's no Sundance; it isn't even Toronto.

But the Newport Beach Film Festival does have bragging rights to last year's U.S. premiere of "Crash," the movie that later was named best picture at the Academy Awards.

Organizers of the seventh annual festival, which begins its 10-day run today, hope that that little fact will help propel the Newport Beach event into one of the country's leading festivals -- no easy feat considering there are nearly 1,000, including the Robert DeNiro-founded Tribeca Film Festival in New York and the Backwoods Film Festival in North Carolina.

"We're definitely finding the success of 'Crash' last year catapulted us into this whole new dimension," said festival co-founder Todd Quartararo. "We've seen an increase in ticket sales already, an increase in film submissions, sponsors calling wanting to get onboard. All the way around, a lot of people have stood up and taken notice."

Executive Director Gregg Schwenk prefers to think of it more like a "Cinderella story seven years in the making." There is no question "Crash" has helped, Schwenk said, but attendance, submissions and the caliber of films have steadily increased over the years.

This year's festival will showcase 350 films from more than 40 countries. Attendance is expected to increase over last year's 31,000 moviegoers. Films run the gamut -- documentaries, short films, family flicks and foreign movies.

This year, organizers are adding an "action sports" category in a nod to Orange County, the epicenter of surf and skate culture and home to Quiksilver, Billabong, Volcom and Oakley -- which all produce action sports movies as ell as manufacture surf-related products.

"The festival circuit has, in a way, replaced the art houses," said Chris Gore, author of "The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide." Traveling with a movie from festival to festival "is as good for a filmmaker as a limited theatrical release," he said.

Newport Beach, Gore said, is among the country's top regional festivals in exposing new work. Just because it got lucky with "Crash" doesn't mean the festival will premiere other future Oscar winners.

But, he said, "Newport Beach represents a shift -- and I think a positive one. It means that no single large festival is dominating.... It means that if you don't get into Sundance, your life isn't over."

David Straus, chief executive and co-founder of Withoutabox, agreed. "Filmmakers have a lot of respect for this festival," said Straus, whose company helps connect more than 85,000 filmmakers to film festivals worldwide. "They've really established themselves."

Still, filmgoers and paparazzi aren't taking over the streets of Newport Beach the way they do at Sundance in Utah, for a glimpse of celebrity. Newport's crowd tends to roam in from throughout Southern California. And unlike some festivals, the venues are scattered across town and not in one central location.

But Schwenk and Quartararo said they were expecting more industry presence this year. And filmmakers and actors are expected again this year to mingle with crowds after screenings to answer questions. There will be no shortage of parties, either.

Industry insiders are even watching from afar. Michael Damian, best known for his longtime role on CBS' "The Young and the Restless," submitted a movie titled "Hot Tamale," which he co-wrote and directed. He said he recently received a call from a distributor in Britain who spotted his movie, which stars Randy Spelling, Jason Priestley and Carmen Electra, on the festival's website. "I can't tell you what it does for a film of this caliber," Damian said.

The festival opens tonight with "Neverwas," starring Aaron Eckhart. Information: (866) NBFF-TIX or www.newportbeachfilmfest.com.

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