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Newport Beach

Volume 5, Issue 54  |  July 7, 2020

It might be pared down, but it’s still our festival


Take a look at the rest of your calendar for 2020. It looks pretty wide open, doesn’t it? Events including Coachella, Stagecoach and even the wonderful Hollywood Bowl summer season have all been pushed back to next year because of COVID-19.

It was only a few months ago that we thought that by fall we could enjoy things like concerts again, but that hope was quickly dashed as the pandemic continues along its destructive path.

But while most event producers nationally have thrown in the towel, Gregg Schwenk, the president and co-founder of the Newport Beach Film Festival, is undaunted. Although the festival’s signature April event was canceled, he is moving ahead with another one this August, although this one will be very different.

The Newport Beach Film Festival, now in its 21st year, is already the fastest growing festival in the United States attracting more than 50,000 attendees with films submitted from more than 50 countries. The event is a glittering gathering of Hollywood celebrities and filmmakers that hang out here in town, walk the red carpet and attract the paparazzi.

Gary Sherwin

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Visit Newport Beach

Gary Sherwin

In February, Schwenk and I were in London to co-host our annual Newport Beach Film Festival UK Honors program which has become a flagship event for the British Academy of Film Awards, which is the British version of the Oscars and a huge publicity opportunity for the city. Two weeks later COVID-19 shut everything down.

Now many film festivals around the country are pivoting to a different format or canceling. Even the famed Cannes event has moved to an all online format this year. Sacrebleu, as they say in France.

When the Newport festival was canceled just a few weeks before the event in April, the festival’s programming was already in the can. Rather than trash all that hard work, Schwenk decided to move ahead on two fronts this year.

This year’s festival, scheduled for August 6-20, a full two weeks, will be held exclusively at The Lot in Fashion Island with a robust 300-film schedule. There will also be a short film component with over 220 films to be screened.

Large social events, including the popular Opening Night gala attended by over 3,000, will be scrapped this year in favor of possibly smaller more socially distant options.

“We approached this festival with three objectives. First, we need to keep everyone safe while they enjoy the films. Second, be respectful of the filmmakers and protect the integrity of their work and thirdly, find a way to do all of this in a financially responsible manner,” Schwenk said.

Screenings at The Lot are expected to be limited to anywhere between 25-50 percent of capacity based on guidelines in August as well as temperature checks. Some of the expected popular films may play simultaneously on a few screens due to limited crowd size.

“Since The Lot is already a premium luxury theatre with reclining seats, spacing between guests is generally already there, but we will still spread out guests,” he said. One way to generate revenue will be to sell the empty seats to companies where they can place promotional signs.

The festival will also host an online version at featuring films in past years with links so people can access and watch on streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime, as well as filmmaker interviews taped at previous festivals.

The Opening Night film at The Lot will be the highly anticipated A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story, directed by Brown’s oldest son Dana. It chronicles the life of the man behind the iconic 1965 surf documentary, The Endless Summer.

Plans are also underway for the 2021 festival which will return to April. Due to the pandemic, the Academy Awards have been pushed back and now will be held two weeks after next year’s festival. That opens up new and unexpected opportunities with Oscar-nominated films and actors.

While most people have stayed home the last few months streaming films, Schwenk is betting that people want to get out, sit in a comfortable theatre and socialize a bit in a safe way.

“Several years ago, Mr. Edwards (of Edwards Cinema fame that once owned most of the local movie theatres) told me, ‘Everyone has a kitchen at home, but they still like to go out to dinner.’ I’m betting the same holds true for now.”

“As the old saying goes,” he said, “the show must go on.” 

Gary Sherwin is President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach and Newport Beach and Company.

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