Interview with Gregg Schwenk & Todd Quartararo

2013-03-28 15:32:06
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Back in 1999, when Todd Quartararo and Gregg Schwenk, a marketer and financial expert who had a passion for movies, decided to create a film festival, they got about as much respect as a screenwriter in Hollywood. People said they were dreamers, crazy. Usually both.

But like good crazy dreamers, they pressed on. They did have their low points, though, and like the movies, one came just before the final act. The week before that first festival, Quartararo says he was worried that no one would show up.

Instead, 13,000 people came. To Quartararo and Schwenk it was as if their shoestring budget indie had won the Oscar.

But they hadn’t seen anything yet. Over the next handful of years their creation steadily grew until in 2004, it really did win the Oscar. Of sorts. The Newport Beach Film Festival screened the U.S. premiere of a little-known film called Crash. That film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and suddenly the “little film festival down by the sea” was a major player on the festival circuit. Submissions, attendance and sponsorship rocketed and Quartararo and Schwenk had a bona fide blockbuster on their hands.

Today, the Newport Beach Film Festival, which runs from April 25 through May 2, is bigger and better than ever. Last year, the festival screened over 350 movies and brought in over 50,000 attendees. This year, it’s projected to be even stronger.

There’s good reason, too. For two film buffs not in the industry, Quartararo and Schwenk created one of the most respected, audience- and filmmaker-friendly film festivals going. With films from 50-plus countries screening in theaters throughout Newport Beach, there are shorts, documentaries, action sports movies, kids and family choices, comedies, dramas, indie films, studio premieres... pick a genre and you’ll have your night. Many films have Q-and-As with the filmmakers and celebrities afterward, and there are galas, awards and even free seminars held at the iconic Port Theater in Corona del Mar on directing, screenwriting, music composition, and more.

It’s an eclectic mix to be sure. But there is one consistent theme to this story, says Schwenk: accessibility. “We’re an elegant event, we’re a sophisticated event, but most importantly, we’re an accessible event,” he says. “Many times I’ll talk to people who see all these celebrities coming to Newport Beach for the festival and they think the festival is only for celebrities and film people, but it’s not. It’s for everybody.”

With that in mind, we sat down with Quartararo and Schwenk to ask about the details.

Is the Newport Beach Film Festival an independent film festival?
Schwenk: No. We’re looking at quality films, whether they’re produced independently or through a studio. As you know, there are a number of festivals that pride themselves on the number of world premieres they have, and while we’ll have a large number of world, American and West Coast premieres, we’re focused on providing a quality experience for our filmmakers and our audience.
Quartararo: Right, so whether it’s an independent or studio film, if it’s a quality film that we feel will resonate with our audience, it’s worthy of playing at our festival.

What’s the process for making the cut?
Schwenk: Our festival is very special in that every official submission is reviewed five times in its entirety before a decision is made about whether it’s playing the festival or not. I know of no other festival anywhere in the world that has that level of commitment to the filmmaker to ensure that their submission is given its due. For example, at some other film festivals, the review process consists of watching 20 minutes of a feature film and if the reviewer doesn’t like it, it’s turned off and the film is never seen again. We felt that wasn’t fair to the filmmaker. We have internal debates and discussions and refer back to a fairly sophisticated system of ranking and grading to help us understand whether or not this is a quality film.

Why is the NBFF important?
Schwenk: First, it’s for our community: They get to see films they wouldn’t necessarily have access to. These are films that are yet to appear in the movie theater or on Netflix or any of the other services. So it’s an important sense of discovery for our audience. The festival is also important for the filmmakers. It gives them the validation that what they’ve been working on for the last several years is of merit. And they can connect with an audience and their artistic endeavors can resonate. And hopefully Newport can be a springboard onto bigger festivals and distribution.

So it’s worth the effort for filmmakers?
Schwenk: We are a very sophisticated audience. We have an audience that really focuses on quality. So to play well at Newport is really valuable.
Quartararo: As the NBFF has grown in size and variety, playing Newport has become more and more important for filmmakers to break through the clutter. What’s going on now is because of the lower barriers to entry regarding filmmaking [because of advanced technology], there are a lot of independent filmmakers out there. So just getting accepted into our festival is a big step. We do a lot of the legwork for the audience, and for the distributors. We sift through the thousands of films that are submitted. So just getting into Newport is an achievement that brings additional notoriety to your film. That goes for studio films as well.

Why do studios submit films to your festival?
Schwenk: It’s three things. It’s a great audience to test and understand how a film is going to play. Two, it’s a springboard for a marketing plan that wants to take advantage of all the exposure and all the opportunities that playing at the NBFF brings. And last but not least, we have a large array of our audience that is south of L.A. and are members of the Academy and of the guilds. That audience is horribly underserved. So we pride ourselves that we are able to engage that audience, who are able to screen films right here that may be eligible a few months down the line for a major award.

What’s the difference between an independent film and a studio film these days?
Schwenk: When we started the festival there were true independent production companies and distribution companies. Then the studios started building their own divisions that would handle their own art house-type films. Now those have been consumed by their larger entities and only a handful still remain as independent arms of the major studios. So right now we’re going through a period of transition. That transition places a heavier emphasis on festivals to help the studios to not only to find the next great hit but to market the hit they will have coming out in the next few months.

The glamour of your festival might hide the fact that you are a pretty family-friendly festival.
Schwenk: Maybe, but in fact, we were voted the number-one family film festival in the U.S. by Kids First! a few years back. There’s a portion of the festival that’s geared toward kids and family and we take a great deal of pride in that.

Can you point to one example of how you’re doing that?
Schwenk: We’ve worked very closely in the past several years with the Chuck Jones Foundation. Chuck Jones was an icon of animation and someone who not only was a pioneer and legend in animation, but a beloved Newport Beach resident. His family has had a very strong partnership with the festival and we continue to screen Chuck Jones-acclaimed animated films and shorts. We also bring out animators who were influenced by Jones to talk with young people and families about what it’s like to be an animator.

You mentioned the process by which a film gets into the festival. Let’s get into the details. How many screeners do you have?
Schwenk: We have a review committee that’s several hundred strong, made up of members of our community that go through an interview and a training program. We also have a programming team made up of film professionals that will also review and score the films.

Describe a screener and a programmer.
Schwenk: A screener is a member of our community who has shown an interest and initiative for reviewing film and also has an ability to articulate [his or her] perspective in a concise and balanced way. A member of the programming team is someone who has maybe attended a major film school, or is a filmmaker who has an extended resume. They have an understanding of both the filmmaking process and the artistic and business value that cinema brings.

How many films are submitted and how many get chosen?
Schwenk: This year, we have gone through a little over 2,000 films. That’s both shorts and features, so they can range from five minutes long to 145 minutes long. On average our review committee members are screening between 30 to 60 films per person, and the programming committee is a little bit more than that. We plan to screen around 350 films.

You’ve always had a lot of filmmakers attend the festival. How do you get them here?
Schwenk: Yes, I’m really proud of the fact that we probably have more post-screening Q-and-A periods than any other festival I’ve ever been to. We’re very fortunate that, given our proximity to Los Angeles, and our destination being the most beautiful place to travel to in the U.S., most of the filmmakers want to come to Newport.

Can anyone attend the galas, or are they for VIPs only?
Schwenk: All of our attendees are VIPs and any of the post-event galas are open to them. For example, opening night will have 40 of the top restaurants in Orange County doing tastings of their signature dish, accompanied with beer and Absolut Vodka and some surprise performances by leading entertainers; past years have included a private performance by Cirque du Soleil and last year was a performance by Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet. At other festivals, you have to be on a special list, or have to know someone to get into the galas. So we’re proud to say that all our events are open to the public.

An offshoot of the festival has been the Orange County Film Society, which screens movies for its members year-round. How does that work for those who don’t know?
Quartararo: We launched the Orange County Film Society to answer the needs of our festival filmgoers who were looking for a festival experience year-round. Members pay $129 a year and we promise them a dozen-plus films. Usually those films are advanced screenings. And often we’re bringing people from the film, either from behind the camera or actors, to do a Q-and-A.

And rumor has it you get some good films.
Quartararo: Definitely. For the last three years we have shown the Oscar best picture winner well before it came out in theaters. For The King’s Speech, David Seidler, the screenwriter who won the Oscar for best screenplay, was at the screening. For The Artist, we had the producer as well as stars Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell, doing a great Q-and-A after the screening. This year we also screened Argo and Lincoln. In fact, this year we screened 15 films in the OC Film Society and of those 15, seven of them were nominated for Golden Globes and five were nominated for Oscars. So that’s a heck of a track record for our programming team for picking what’s hot and what’s next.

You’ve also had some success with screening premieres of award-winning films during the festival. The first was of course, 2004 Oscar-winner Crash, which had its world premiere at the NBFF. Did that help your reputation?
Quartararo: After Crash and the critical acclaim and commercial success and the Oscars, it really catapulted our festival to the next level. We saw a dramatic increase in film submissions as well as audience attendance. It helped put us on the map regionally, as well as nationally, with people realizing that Newport Beach is a great incubator for up-and-coming films.

You did it again in 2009, this time with the documentary The Cove, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary.
Schwenk: Yes, and I think serious documentary filmmakers look at Newport as the perfect place to screen their films. We treat our filmmakers well. Documentaries play well with our audience. And I’ve talked to a number of acclaimed documentarians who have said they have some of their best screenings and best audiences at Newport.

Finally, is the festival all you hoped it would be when you started it 14 years ago?
Schwenk: We look at the Newport Beach Film Festival as Orange County’s most creative week. It’s a time for our local filmmakers to shine, but also to bring the international spotlight here to Orange County. And that’s more than we could have ever hoped for.


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