Hollywood & Vines

Is Napa Valley about to become Hollywood's next Sundance?


A fleet of Mercedes-Benzes crawl through downtown Napa. Later, they’re motoring through the once sleepy streets of St. Helena, where restaurants boom well past midnight. Crowds jam the streets. Traffic is tight. Harvest is winding down, yet these towns clearly are not. Is this Napa Valley, or some Hollywood film in the making?

According to projections, such a bustling scene may be the future of the Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF), running Nov. 9–13.

In its inaugural year, the festival is poised to take over the region with nearly a hundred shorts, documentaries and feature films screening in venues from Napa to Calistoga over five days. Five thousand people are expected to attend, with enough winetasting, VIP parties and chauffeured celebrities to do Hollywood proud—but the question is, will the locals be equally enthused?

If you ask Brenda and Marc Lhormer, the founders and directors of the festival, the answer is yes.

The roots of the NVFF dig back to 2005, when the Lhormers were approached by a collective of Napa downtown development leaders to gauge interest in what would later become a film festival aimed at exploiting the projected boom in downtown.

In 2008, the couple’s film Bottle Shock was released to audiences. Cut to 2009. The Lhormers had severed ties with the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, which they’d spent seven years refashioning, citing “vision divergence from the board.” They were primed for their next venture, which happened to coincide with the downtown resurgence.

“We wanted to do our research and see if the community would embrace it,” says Brenda Lhormer. They polled vintners, chambers of commerce, the Napa Destination Council and general managers of a select group of hotels. “We asked them, ‘If we did this, what time of year would be right and when would it be economically feasible?’ By 2010, we knew we’d struck upon something people really wanted,” says Lhormer. “We started getting calls from Yountville, Calistoga and St. Helena, all wanting to be a part of it. There had never been an event that occurred at the same time in all the communities.”

Though fueled by the positive response, the Lhormers weren’t sold. So they got to work on a launch event for November of 2010. “That and Sundance [where the NVFF hosted a 300-person party with chef Michael Chiarello] became our proof of concept. We wouldn’t have gone forward if we didn’t have equal support in the film community and here.” Armed with two successful test drives, the Lhormers moved forward with plans to roll out a full-fledged event in 2011.

The festival, just days away, appears to be buoyed by a bevy of supporters, from its 400 volunteers to participating local businesses. “We congratulate the NVFF on its inaugural year and celebrate the focused efforts they have made to integrate and collaborate with local businesses,” says Katherine Zimmer, vice president of marketing and communications for the Napa Chamber of Commerce. “This far-reaching festival benefits our local economy and communities.”

While many champion the cause, others don’t—especially when it comes to the price. The pricing structure, modeled after the Telluride Film Festival, is based on different tiers of passes that range from $75 to $2,500, granting attendees varying degrees of access to parties, screenings, panels and other perks. Rush tickets for films will be sold for $10 after all passholders have entered, based on availability. Residents of Sonoma and Napa counties are being offered discounted rates for the “Festival Pass” level at $195 (regularly $245) and the “Plus Pass” for $445 (full price $495).

“Our mission has always been to produce a festival that supports independent filmmakers,” says Lhormer. “A big reason for our nonprofit status is to give our higher level passholders a tax write-off. Sure, it’s important to support ourselves, but we want to give back.”

This includes the festival’s alliance with Roots of Peace, which will present its Global Citizen on Nov. 12. The program honors recipients of its “Mines to Vines” program, which converts landmines into vineyards in war-torn regions around the world.

Others question the need for yet another film festival when the Bay Area is already saturated, especially given the competition with festival heavyweights like Mill Valley. “What distinguishes ours from those urban festivals is the community aspect,” Lhormer says. “We wanted to create these intimate villages where you can drink wines, walk from venue to venue, see a culinary demo and watch a movie in an airplane hanger,” Lhormer shares.

The festival channels Hollywood’s “up all night” ways, with each city hosting its rendition of late-night lounges and VIP afterparties. Some venues will stay open until 2am, a marked switch in cities like St. Helena that typically settle by 10pm when most restaurants close.

Every town “village” will feature its own welcome center, screening venues and wine pavilion, each as diverse as the cities themselves. Venues range from Calistoga’s Gliderport at Indian Springs to Napa’s historic Hatt Hall, set to transform into the “Lounge” to screen edgier films like White Knight, with Tom Sizemore playing the grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.

Napa’s welcome center will make use of the former Copia building. A sneak preview of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar screens as part of the Nov. 9 sneak preview night in Yountville, with the festival’s opening night gala on Nov. 10 at Robert Mondavi Winery. Opening night also features, among many others, a screening of Alexander Payne’s Descendants, starring George Clooney, at the Napa Valley Opera House.

Those hoping to rub some celebrity elbow will get the chance at the Avia Hotel, where the Buick Tweet House will cater to VIP technophiles and those hoping to catch a glimpse of Adrian Grenier, a confirmed guest. Other celebrities slated to attend the festival are Jeffrey Wright, Judy Greer, Dane Cook, Matthew Lilliard, Eliza Dushku, Rob Morrow, Scott Wolf, Freddy Rodriguez and Heather Morris—some of which will participate in Sunday’s “Actors in Conversation” panel at Silo’s Jazz Club in Napa.

The festival ends on Nov. 13 with the closing-night feature Like Crazy, starring Felicity Jones and directed by Drake Doremus, followed by an awards ceremony at the Napa Valley Opera House. And in true Hollywood style, the festival ends with a multi-venue wrap party downtown at 1313 Main, Zins Valley and Morimoto.

As in Hollywood, entry to the party is exclusive to passholders.

The Napa Valley Film Festival runs Nov. 9-13. For full festival schedule, see www.napavalleyfilmfest.org.

Sonoma County Library