Photograph by Ole Kragh-Jacobsen
Nuptials: The Danish drama 'After the Wedding' is among the yowza films slated for the SVFF.
A look back at the first 10 years of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival
By David Templeton
Let's talk numbers.
The Ten, directed by David Wain, is an affectionately heretical, indie-tinged spoof-romp through all 10 of those celebrated, party-pooping commandments from the Old Testament. It is purely coincidental that a movie named The Ten has been chosen to help kick off of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival's grand and expanded 10th year (April 11-15), but the organizers of the festival are not above pointing out the freaky numerical synchronicity. Featuring Gretchen Mol, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen, Oliver Platt and Paul Rudd (the latter of whom is expected to be in attendance at the SVFF, along with a gazillion other film-land notables), The Ten could be described as irreverent, funny, upsetting, experimental, bizarre, challenging and wonderful--all words that (another coincidence!) have actually been employed to describe the SVFF at various times in its first rags-to-riches decade.
"This is the big 10," enthuses SVFF executive director Marc Lhormer, who, with his wife, Brenda, has been involved in the festival in one capacity or another for the last seven years. "To have reached 10 years is quite a milestone. For right now, though, I'm just looking forward to this year's festival."
The number of screening venues has grown from five to seven, positioned all around Sonoma's historic plaza, with the addition of the Sonoma Veterans Hall, which will feature two venues: a 450-seat room named Hollywood (where the major events--a star-packed John Lasseter tribute and the closing-night awards ceremony--will be held) and a smaller side room dubbed Vine. With more than 80 films in play, most of them screening at least three times, the proudly unconventional film festival--which features free food and wine pairings at every screening--is clearly counting on big audiences this year for its big anniversary.
Moreover, the SVFF (which Brenda Lhormer dubbed "Cinema Epicuria" in 2002) has become famous for the quality of its parties, the hospitality with which visiting filmmakers are treated (many of them staying in the homes of Sonoma-based "host families") and the general accessibility of the visiting celebrities. Another thing the festival has become known for--though this may never end up on the promotional brochures--is the somewhat happy-go-lucky, accident-prone nature of some of its celebrity tributes; people are still talking about 2003's projector snafu that inspired Robin Williams to give a hilarious seven-minute rant about free wine at film festivals ("I saw a wino in the park across the street going, 'Motherfuck! I should have made a film!'").
But back when the festival began in the fall of 1997, the entire affair was conspicuously less memorable, decidedly grassroots and homespun (read: amateur but well-intentioned), mainly consisting of a big, fancy Saturday-night party surrounded by a bunch of lightly attended film screenings.
"It was a little embarrassing," says Lhormer, who would not become involved until the festival's third year. "Those first few years established the festival as a place where the filmmakers were treated very, very well, but there was not the full marketing program that would really generate an audience and justify even having the festival."
The underlying problem was simple: with few exceptions, the festival didn't offer films that anyone wanted to see.
In 2002, after two years of involvement as a host family for out-of-town filmmakers, Brenda was named executive director. One of her first acts was to hire a programmer with solid indie film connections: Chris Gore, editor of Film Threat magazine and website, and author of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. It is not hard to make the case that with Gore working to draw cool films and filmmakers from around the country and developing unique film venues, and with the Lhormer's refocusing the festival with the Cinema Epicuria brand, 2002 was the turning point.
That year, the festival doubled its attendance.
Gore, who had just landed a television series with Stars Cinema, was back for 2003, which saw increased attendance, but when negotiations to bring him back again broke off during the summer of 2003, the SVFF went shopping for a new director of programming. Since Gore's departure (he's back this year as one of the jurors), there has been a new programmer every year, each one bringing his or her own flavor and tone to the festival's strategically motley vibe.
With Hollywood film buyer Tiffany Naiman in the programmer's seat, 2004 was the edgy year, with lots of films about heroin addiction and alcoholism showing up in the schedule, and articulate teenage charmer Jena Malone (Saved, The United States of Leland) cadging cigarettes from moviegoers on the sidewalk.
Two thousand five was the "personal movies" year, with Bay Area filmmaker Jesse Lindow programming a large number of solidly humane films about people pursuing their own dreams at all costs. It was the year teenage gay rights crusader Shelby Knox did not cadge cigarettes on the sidewalk, but was at all the parties, happily debating the merits of public-school sex education with anyone who'd listen.
Last year, with East Coast programmer (and sometime theater manager) Gabriel Wardell on board, an "urban sensibility" was in evidence, with a step away from some of the more playful, silly films seen in previous years and a noticeable upgrade in the technical and crowd-management professionalism of all the theater venues. For 2007, the festival has signed Cevin Cathell (pronounced like "Kevin"), a film producer (Eve's Bayou) and the programmer of the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
This may become the year of the "big buzz" film, with movies like The Ten, the much-talked-about 1970s drama Diggers, the corporate vampire spoof Netherbeast Incorporated, Sarah Polley's directorial debut with the bittersweet Away from Her, the truly great reality TV thriller Voyeur, and the atmospheric Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver romance Snow Cake, all of which have been getting a lot of good word-of-mouth.
"This is the more-eclectic-than-usual year," says Cathell, "with some killer shorts [check out the animated masterpieces One Rat Short and The Ghost of Sam Peckinpah] that people will be talking about in all the restaurants, and a lot of strong, strong American independents. This is the year where people will say congratulations on the first 10, now we can't wait for the next 10."
"Ultimately," Marc Lhormer adds, "no matter what you do in your festival, no matter how crazy the parties are and how many visiting stars there are, a film festival lives or dies based on the strength of its programming. If people don't like the films, the festival's not going to last. I truly believe the Sonoma Valley Film Festival is going to last a long, long time."
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