All Access: Looking Back on 20 Years of Covering the Newport Beach Film Fest

Photo courtesy Newport Beach Film Festival

That a 20th anniversary Newport Beach Film Fest (NBFF) is happening Thursday, April 25 through May 2 is amazing when you consider the cinextravaganza’s humble beginnings. There had been a Newport Beach International Film Festival, which went belly-up in 1999 after a four-year run, leaving unpaid vendors, pissed-off volunteers and much ill will in its wake.

However, Gregg Schwenk, an investment banker and Newport Harbor High School graduate, and Todd Quartararo, the pride of Irvine’s Woodbridge High working in marketing as a San Diego transplant, still believed a seaside film festival was viable, even in Hollywood’s back yard.

“We were not big entertainment guys starting this up,” Quartararo says at NBFF’s headquarters off Quail Street, “but we had a love for this community.”

Such love normally would not be enough to convince city leaders and visitors-bureau representatives to buy into an untested film-festival team’s vision, especially after one so recently crashed and burned. But a funny thing happened at Newport Beach City Hall: Schwenk and Quartararo were welcomed with open arms. And coffers.

“Thank God for the city,” Quartararo says.

“Without the city and the City Council, it would not be happening,” Schwenk agrees during a separate interview.

After the official blessing came the really hard part: starting a new festival. “International” was dropped from the name, but not from the mission to present global programming, and a juried competition to honor film excellence was launched. Schwenk remembers working out with Quartararo how they would acquire operating funds as they sat in the investment banker’s 20th-floor office at Citibank.

A tiny office across from John Wayne Airport was donated to the festival. Looking around the roomy work space he now shares with another festival employee, Quartararo estimated NBFF’s first headquarters—which was stuffed with banners, promotional materials, stacks of videos and desks on top of one another—“was literally the size of this room,” which just happens to be around the corner from the original space.

Schwenk, from his current office, which is not as large as Quartararo’s (but there is only one of him), recalls at first having only two computers and two phones in the original HQ. If both lines were in use, you’d have to wait until a phone was hung up before making a call out.

“When they were showing us the office,” Schwenk says, “there was a copy machine. I asked, ‘Do we get the copy machine?’ We had that copier for 15 years. How far we’ve come.”

How far, indeed. Thanks to a team of mostly volunteers who hit established festivals such as Palm Springs, Sundance and Toronto International; introduced themselves to filmmakers; and lobbied to get them to bring their movies to a place most had never heard of, NBFF has risen to become the largest film festival between San Diego and Los Angeles, the biggest in Southern California celebrating a 20-year anniversary, and a Moviemaker magazine choice as an annual fest worth a filmmaker’s entry fee.

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NBFF co-founder Gregg Schwenk (left) with Keira Knightley and Visit Newport Beach’s Gary Sherwin at a 2017 festival event in London. Photo courtesy of NBFF

“This was very rag-tag in the beginning,” Quartararo says. “We had our hat in our hands for a lot of things. I used to rent searchlights [for opening night and festival parties] in San Diego, put them in the back of my car and drive them to Newport. There was no money to have them delivered. I’d arrive in my suit, take them out, plug them in, and then take them to the next event. That’s how we rolled.”

In the early days, films arrived as 35mm prints in such heavy canisters that much of the festival budget had to be dedicated to the postage to mail them and to the able-bodied who could hand-deliver them. Entries later arrived as much lighter VHS tapes, but their use also necessitated the painstaking process of splicing onto every tape commercials for sponsors and the annual NBFF trailer that precedes each program.

When I first volunteered to be an NBFF screener, I picked up a gift bag filled with videotape submissions, which I was to watch via my home VCR before rating each film on a sheet of paper that I was to turn in when I returned the bag.

I grabbed one bag on my way to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving, but, overcome by vacation brain, I left it in the back of a San Francisco taxi, something I did not realize until hours later. Convinced that, at best, I would be fired as a volunteer or, at worst, face a prison term (have you read the small print on the FBI piracy warnings?), I sheepishly called the cab company, and to my utter amazement, the driver arrived at the door with the gift bag.

“Thinking back to the days of VHS tapes, I am kind of getting a knot in my stomach about it,” Quartararo says. “It was humbling. We did not know any other way.”

Later in my screener career, as DVD players started overtaking the consumer market, discs began filtering into those gift bags. Later, you got a choice: all tapes, all DVDs or mixed. Then the VHS tapes disappeared altogether; later, so did the gift bags. Today’s festival screeners rely on an online “key” that unlocks links to content that can be played on laptops and, if it wins admission, in projection rooms. “Thankfully, as we’ve grown,” Quartararo says, “[the process has] become more sophisticated.”

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Stormtroopers storm the Lido in 2007. Photo courtesy NBFF

The NBFF has gained a reputation for off-the-hook opening-night galas, after-parties and closing-night blowouts.

Muldoon’s Irish Pub, which is behind Big Newport, is always the place for the Irish Spotlight films’ after-parties, which in my humble opinion are the funnest NBFF open-bar parties. Schwenk recalls that after he popped into Muldoon’s on an errand just days after one Irish Spotlight party, he found an Emerald Isle film’s cast and crew were still darkening the pub stools. “I asked them, ‘Don’t you guys ever go home?’”

Tasked with choosing one, all-time favorite festival memory, Schwenk did not cite a party or even a film screening, but rather the night in 2001 the NBFF honored “a director’s director.”

“One of the greatest things was listening to Robert Wise talk about editing,” he says of the late director of West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (among many others). Before sliding into the director’s chair, Wise had edited Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (among many others). His conversation led to NBFF working with the Motion Picture Editors Guild to bring other top Hollywood cutters to speak at later festivals and establish editing awards. That formula was repeated for cinematography, music and screenwriting.

Jeremy Renner promotes Neverwas at the 2006 fest. Photo courtesy NBFF

In 2000, or year one, about 15,000 people showed up for 45 feature films and 100 shorts that rolled over eight days. By the 2002 fest, 19,500 ticket buyers were lured by 73 features and 110 shorts from 27 countries over nine days. One highlight from that fest “was absolutely insane,” according to Quartararo. “We had the Polyester 20th-anniversary showing with scratch ’n’ sniff cards at the Lido, and then, at the Hard Rock Café, ‘An Evening with John Waters,’ which was nuts. People were hanging on every word coming out of his mouth.”

Hopefully, neither Waters nor Quartararo recalls that Weekly music writer Chris Ziegler was 86ed from the event. He and three friends were standing front and center, yammering happily (and drunkenly) to one another about how glad they were to see the famous gross-out filmmaker, forcing Waters to ask them at least four times to shut up. Enter the security guards who tossed Ziegler, who was bewildered at the time.

With his patented two forefingers typing style, and after having sobered up from being “an Orson Welles sort of drunk that ably edited out all but the most essential bits of plot,” Ziegler banged out the following: “[T]he way I remember it—or the way I remember the parts I remember—is nothing but lovely times until John Waters waves his spotty hand and two big dudes hoist me up by the underarms and—just like the movies!—toss me out on my actual ass, which is something that should happen to everyone at least once just so you can wince knowingly when you see it happen onscreen to Jim Rockford.”

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NBFF co-founder Todd Quartararo with Tom Everett Scott at the 2018 fest. Photo by Matt Coker

Everyone agrees that the 2005 festival was the real game changer because NBFF scouts at the Toronto International Film Festival fell head over celluloid for a little-known LA drama oozing with racial tensions. That led to the U.S. premiere screening at NBFF of Crash, which would go on 11 months later to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“That was the year that catapulted us to the national stage,” Quartararo says. “It was pretty cool.”

I thought it was pretty cool free Absolut Vodka cocktails were being served at the Fashion Island opening-night gala after that screening. As I stood at the end of a long line to the outdoor bar, a bright light clicked on for an impromptu, on-camera interview with Crash writer/director Paul Haggis, who stood about 2 feet from me. The journalist in me probably should have fired him some pointed questions about his controversial film, but daddy needed to get his drink on. (I’m beginning to detect a theme with Weekly reporters at the festival.)

Benedict Cumberbatch at 2017 NBFF event in London. Photo courtesy NBFF

Having premiered a top Academy Award winner had Hollywood calling the NBFF brass to schedule films during the 2006 festival, as opposed to the other way around, as it had been in the previous years. Heading into that NBFF, the Weekly received press releases from film studios and distributors announcing their titles had won selection nods—with each noting this was the same festival that premiered Crash.

Schwenk’s ’05 highlight was “hearing Richard Sherman play music, considering he and his brother composed the songbook for most children I know.”

Richard and Robert Sherman are renowned for their songs in Disney movies, although their most famous tune is “It’s a Small World (After All)” for the Disneyland ride. The festival honored Richard Sherman, and Schwenk found him to be “such a great raconteur. He’d talk about how he wrote songs while talking with Walt Disney for a motion picture, and then . . . he’d sit down at the piano and play every song. Wow! That was such a rare opportunity with someone who had influenced so many people.”

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Gabrielle Reece and Laird Hamilton at opening night 2018. Photo courtesy NBFF

Festival staffers for the 10th-anniversary NBFF in 2009 prodded me into checking out a little indie dramedy called Spooner. It was directed by former Santa Ana resident Drake Doremus and starred former Tustin resident Matthew Lillard in the title role.

As I was trying without success to wrangle a press screener, I was contacted by Doremus’ mother, Cherie Kerr, whom I’d corresponded with for years because the former Groundling founded and runs the Santa Ana-based Orange County Crazies improv-comedy troupe. This time, Kerr didn’t want Crazies coverage; she wanted Spooner coverage.

Without having seen the film, I bumped into Kerr and Doremus at a pre-festival party for directors. I explained I needed to watch the film so I could ask intelligent questions for a “hometown-boy-done-good” story. Doremus hand-delivered a screener the next morning, explaining the earlier delay was caused by a producer fearing the film was getting overexposed before its playdate.

I was exposed to one of the best, freshest and quirkiest romantic comedies I had seen in a long, long time. But the festival had by then opened, and I was really up against the deadline gun if I was to turn around a story before Spooner’s playdate. In the festival’s hospitality suite, which had computers to share, I checked my emails for Doremus’ cell number and, getting ready to punch in the numbers, overheard someone in the bay next to me say, “Matt.” Looking at the next-door computer screen, I saw a publicity still of Lillard from Spooner and, bending my neck around, spied Doremus and his co-writer Lindsay Stidham.

We did the interview right there, the Spooner story made the deadline, and it led to me tagging along with Doremus and his cast and crew for his next picture, Douchebag, to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for a Weekly cover story. (A giant, framed copy of our cover with John Gilhooley’s portrait of Doremus hangs in our Fountain Valley office.) The following year, Doremus’ Like Crazy won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, a journey covered in real time for the Weekly by Corona del Mar’s Ben York Jones, who co-starred in Douchebag. Jones and his childhood pal Doremus wrote Like Crazy, which starred Anton Yelchin. Doremus is back at NBFF this year as the producer of a documentary about the late actor, Love, Antosha.

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2006 Youth Film Showcase honorary chairman Will Ferrell. Photo courtesy NBFF

I don’t recall Schwenk ever sounding fearful he might not be able to pull off a festival until 2010. Just before Christmas, the Irvine Co. revealed out of the blue that the six-screen Edwards Island Cinemas at Fashion Island would undergo months of remodeling, much to the dismay of NBFF schedule makers. City funding dictated the festival be confined to Newport Beach, but even combined, the Lido, Edwards Big Newport and pop-up spots such as the Orange County Museum of Art did not have enough screens for 300-plus films.

With opening night weeks away, Schwenk kicked around the idea of taking the year off, but he feared such a stoppage would be the death of a festival that relied on year-to-year momentum. Close to zero hour, and after much pleading, Schwenk got the city to agree to allow festival screenings just across the Newport Beach border, at Starlight Triangle Square Cinemas in Costa Mesa.

The 2010 run would attract 51,000 ticket buyers, who were obviously unaware the festival came close to shutting down, possibly forever. What is now The LOT Fashion Island luxury cinema is back in the NBFF rotation, along with the Lido, Big Newport and Starlight Triangle Square.

Speaking before a packed Lido Theatre house during NBFF 2011, Aaron Sorkin whipped out one-liners and funny stories concerning his career as a playwright, Emmy-winning television writer (The West Wing) and Oscar-winning film writer (The Social Network). He spoke about his past projects, new projects and rumored projects. He acknowledged, “I’ve been accused of writing dialogue like a guy on a first date desperately trying to get a second date. And [he] probably won’t.” He received approving applause after saying, “I’d love to see a day come when people go to a movie because of who wrote it.”

I recall it being very inspiring, and it’s also one of the 20-year highlights cited by Schwenk, who let me in on a secret: He was able to connect with Sorkin because his assistant is the daughter of the NBFF CEO’s sixth-grade teacher. “She told me, ‘Mrs. Carpenter says hi.’ It’s Hollywood. It’s who you know.”

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Jon Favreau attending 2014 fest. Photo courtesy NBFF

The unofficial lowlight of that year’s NBFF, which came the night before Sorkin, was Andy Dick showing up drunk off his ass at the Newport Lexus dealership after-party, just before midnight. The comic actor unzipped his pants, took out his junk, started rubbing himself against a table, went inside a display booth, peed, and then tore the booth down. He was last seen chewing on decorative rubber plants.

Without a doubt, though, the 2012 festival goes down as the glitchiest NBFF to date. The first sign there was trouble came on the second night, as folks stood in line atop the Fashion Island parking structure for half an hour after the scheduled start time in Island Cinemas of the movie Hick. Volunteers finally informed the ticket-holding crowd that the screening of the latest from director Derick Martini, whose Lymelife opened the 2009 NBFF, was canceled. Broken Kingdom rolled at Island Cinemas the next night, after its audience had to wait a half-hour beyond its scheduled start time. Like Vinyl, another film that screened at Island Cinemas that night, Broken Kingdom repeatedly froze or skipped ahead. The next night, Jake Schreier’s Robot and Frank was a no-show at the same theater, although the film starring Frank Langella went on to fill a closing-night slot.

Some interruptions were caused by film distributors being protective of movies headed for theatrical release, but most were attributed to projection equipment at the time being unable to play Blu-Ray versions of the films. Quartararo attended one screening where that was the problem. “I remember being absolutely devastated the film was not playing correctly,” he says. “I had a packed theater. My heart went out to them. They had gotten sitters so they could go out for the night. We made sure we made good, that everyone left happy.”

At a different showing, a screenwriter saved the program by whipping out a DVD he had on him to replace the Blu-Ray, although the results onscreen were grainy and “do not copy” messages flashed. The audience didn’t seem to mind, including the one at home enjoying NBFF’s first “online festival,” with digital versions of select motion pictures available for viewing on the web.

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Kate Beckinsale at 2016 fest event. Photo courtesy NBFF

The biggest news as the Newport Beach Film Fest opened its 15th run in 2014 had nothing to do with the world premiere of the rom-com Lovesick starring Matt LeBlanc and everything to do with Absolut no longer being the official vodka sponsor. After more years and hangovers than I can remember, the coveted slot was being filled by Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which back then was a little-known liquor from Mockingbird Distillery in Austin, Texas. The Tito’s-NBFF relationship is still going strong. “They’ve grown with us,” Quartararo says. “Everyone at Tito’s knows us by name.”

During the 2015 NBFF, I moderated a fascinating discussion with scholars from UC Irvine and Orange Coast College as part of the Orson Welles Centennial Tribute. As I was leaving, I could see in the Island Cinemas lobby that Jared Harris was posing for photos against the NBFF backdrop, like a movie star or something. Schwenk had just led a separate talk in a different theater with the actor and son of the late, great Richard Harris about his amazing career (Mad Men, Lincoln and many, many more).

As Schwenk and Harris walked outside, I bumped into my pal Leslie Feibleman, the NBFF director of Special Programs & Community Cinema, who demanded we pose for our annual photo together in front of the festival backdrop (as though we’re wannabe movie stars or something). After I broke the camera, I headed outside and unknowingly into Schwenk, who quickly called me over to introduce Harris.

I told Harris how much I enjoyed his interview on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, which was recorded in the standup comedian’s Highland Park garage. The actor replied that Maron was a rather “strange fellow” who seemed shy and withdrawn in his kitchen before the interview, but once the mics were hot, he lit up. I then told Harris I had just read he directed the Mad Men episode that was airing that night. After Harris informed me there were only three episodes of the much-lauded series left, I got nervous and, after an uncomfortable pause, blurted out something about how great he was on the show—along the lines of “Remember when you were hanging on the door? That was awesome!” That caused a look of “Oh, no, fanboy” to come over Harris’ face as I heard Schwenk remark, “Jared needs to get to his room.”

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Chris O’Dowd spoke at the 2016 fest. Photo courtesy NBFF

I doubt anyone could have predicted how well Dirty Old Wedge would do at NBFF 2016. Producer/director Tim Burnham had mounted a Kickstarter campaign to fund his documentary on Newport Beach’s world-famous surf break at the end of the Balboa Peninsula. Feibleman, who programs the action-sports movies, knew local surf films historically sell out their debut screening, which leads to a second, but interest was so keen so early for Burnham’s first project that three showings were scheduled before the festival even opened, and tickets to all of them were snatched up.

Fortunately, Dirty Old Wedge is a damn fine movie, giving a historical perspective on the manmade-wave phenomenon and its, ahem, fervent protectors. Quality over homerism explains why a fourth screening was added during the festival; it, too, immediately sold out. Facing the boisterous audience at the Lido Theatre, Schwenk announced that the action-sports documentary had just become the biggest ticket seller in the festival’s 17-year history. An unprecedented fifth and final showing was also scheduled.

Last year, NBFF was loaded with comedy, so much so that the Weekly played up that programming decision and featured an image on the cover from Kyle Rideout’s Adventures in Public School, which would be making its world premiere in Newport. Unfortunately, in the sobering atmosphere of a darkened theater, I found Rideout and Josh Epstein’s story about the relationship between a smothering mother (Judy Greer) and her socially awkward son (Daniel Doheny) a mess. That’s the thing about film festivals: Movies that read promising on paper (or cellphone) don’t always deliver. But when it came to the closing-night picture, John Hyams’ All Square, which is about a small town’s bookie (Michael Kelly of House of Cards) taking action on Little League games, NBFF Director of Programming Sarah Sleeger nailed it when she told me, “It’s really, really funny.”

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Colin Hanks at 2015 fest. Photo courtesy NBFF

The 20th-annual Newport Beach Film Fest brings 300-plus films from 50 countries to our shores starting Thursday, April 25. Luce, the opening-night picture, is already sold out if you just wanted to see the movie, but you can still get in with a $225 package deal that includes the gala afterward, when free food, Tito’s (and other booze) and entertainment will be served.

The May 2 closing-night documentary, Part of Water, is about Ben Carlson, the Newport Beach lifeguard who died saving a drowning swimmer. Let us hope the Lido is well-stocked with hankies for that one.

As we spoke about four weeks before NBFF 2019, Schwenk recognized the time we were in. “Even after 20 years, you plan and plan and plan, and now it’s a little calm before the storm.”

It energizes him that staffers such as Feibleman, Festival Director Riki Kucheck and Director of Shorts Programming Dennis Baker “have been with us 15 to 18 years-plus, and they are still excited by it. They are still excited finding and reviewing films. In some cases, they are just as passionate, if not more so, than when they started.”

He then thought back to all the times NBFF has featured films from foreign countries, which bring their respective expatriates to Newport Beach—as well as their native cuisines. “I love that. That’s truly what we wanted 20 years ago,” Schwenk says. “It’s not our festival. It’s everyone’s festival.”

For more details on the Newport Beach Film Fest, including screening titles, locations and show times, visit newportbeachfilmfest.com.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

One Reply to “All Access: Looking Back on 20 Years of Covering the Newport Beach Film Fest”

  1. Great insightful fun article. Newport Beach Film Festival is awesome. One never knows who they will meet. I have been to all 20 and it is an annual event that showcases our paradise by the sea.

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