15 years of film festivals —from Williams to Waters
It’s Friday noon, but just barely. POETS day if you’re Kevin McNeely, which decodes as Piss-Off-Early-Tomorrow’s—Saturday and translates—for our purposes—to: Where’s the waitress? Let’s have us a drink. First, it’s a cold unfiltered sake, so antiseptic surgical interns could use it to scrub in; later, it’s beer. Kevin McNeely is a man with a plan, and today’s plan includes lunch and a bit of something with which to wash it down.
He’s rolled up astride a vintage BMW bike, dismounting like a middle-aged James Dean. The helmet removed reveals a cascade of hair, a soft tumble of waves any 59-year-old man would be proud to shake loose. McNeely’s hair is—or it was—rock star hair, and McNeely is comfortable with the association (although recently he’s had himself somewhat shorn).
After all, his job requires that he regularly rub up against major Hollywood icons, the crème de la crème of the American moviemaking elite. As the executive director of the Sonoma Valley International Film Festival, McNeely’s job requires that he escort the likes of Susan Sarrandon around town. He’s had Lauren Hutton straddling the back of his bike and has been upstaged mid-interview by Robin Williams. And of course there’s Bruce Willis, his great chum from the old days, when the two of them were just a couple of thirsty guys trying to make it in New York. “We’d both ended up on a film in the lowliest of positions,” McNeely explains. “Bruce was a stand-in, which is someone paid to stand in a particular spot so that they can do lighting and focus the camera, and I was a PA, a production assistant, which meant go get coffee and make sure you’re the first one on the set and if anyone needs anything you go get it. We became great friends, and Bruce was a bartender in a place that I love.”
Kevin McNeely is, it seems, fond of his wobbly pop. He’s brought a gift of a corkscrew embossed with the film festival’s logo; it feels weighty and well-made in my hands. “There’s a counter on the end of that thing,” McNeely says, “and I wanna make sure it’s in three digits the next time I see you.”
He gives up a sweet Irish smile, and it’s easy to see how he’s moved up in the world; McNeely is, quite simply, a very likable guy. He’s a big man, six foot four and strong-built, but there’s a palpable gentleness to his affect: When he speaks to the waitress he looks her dead in the eye; he guides me through the lunch menu with kindly sweetness. His attentions are attentive, as if emitting a forcefield capable of blocking distractions. Though the kitchen is busy with cacophonous industry and hungry customers crowd the tables and bar and McNeely knows everyone from busboy to chef, when his brown eyes find you, there’s no one else there.
The Sonoma Valley Film Festival is 15 years old this year, exactly astride the chasm between youth and maturity. To celebrate its coming of age, McNeely is throwing his festival a quinseañera, the vaunted Latino tradition akin to a European cotillion. In addition to its menu of 90 films, the festival will host an additional 15 exclusively in Spanish. These 15 will screen at the Sonoma Charter School theater, and—with luck—will be all but free to their intended public. “We’re hoping to reach out to the Latino community,” McNeely explains. “Every year we try to have our programming reach out to people from a wide demographic. Film is a common denominator. Race, creed, color, politics...don’t always get involved. A film can be a point of discussion between two people who would never have known each other or cared to talk to each other. I think it’s our responsibility,” he says, “and if we had the money we’d do it all year long.” This festival-within-a-festival will have food and wine, too. “Maybe one of those wonderful taco trucks,” McNeely says, thinking out loud. Because the film festival is months away yet, the details are still a bit murky. But whichever way the whole thing eventually plays out, you’ve got to give the guy points for heart. “I hope it all works,” he confesses. “If it doesn’t, I’m gonna be so bummed.”
It is not easy for a film to make the program of the Sonoma Valley International Film Festival. Nine hundred submissions must be winnowed to ninety. To do that requires a year-round staff of four, but at crunch time that number balloons. The festival itself is run by a faithful compendium of volunteers who do crowd control and cleanup for the price of a free ticket. It is organic and synergistic, it is highly structured and somehow not, it is an orgiastic five days of food, wine and film, and year by year, it keeps growing. “The great white lie of film festivals,” McNeely explains, “is when you look at attendance records. If you go to five films, you’re counted as five people.” And then those five people are multiplied out with some magical math. “That’s how you see these extraordinary numbers. Some festivals are shameless,” he goes on, too politic to name names. “But at our festival, we count five as one. We say everyone who comes sees five films, and we think that’s conservative.” In reality, the Sonoma Film Festival attracts around 3,200 people who collectively view the featured films some 16,000 times. Sixty percent of them come from the Bay Area, but the other 40 percent come from farther away: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis. Their numbers help explain why big fish industry insiders are so eager to end up in a country town of 10,000. They come for the eyeballs, of course. And the wine.
Wine—ubiquitous Sonoma Valley enticement and famed inhibition eraser—is as much a featured star at this festival as the films. It flows fast in the big tent that houses the festival’s Plaza headquarters, and it streams into cups at the Community Center. At the festival’s opening night gala the wine gushes and spouts, in the Sebastiani Barrel Room it perfumes the air. There are seven venues at McNeely’s film festival, all easily accessible on foot from the Plaza. And that’s no accident, either, because this festival knows what it is. Its mascot, after all, is Tipsy, the tunefully anthropomorphic bottle of red wine with the ribald sense of propriety and the soft shoes. Teetotalers be warned: This thing’s a party.
And it has been since the beginning. In fact, during those first years, the festival was more bacchanal than serious film venue. Despite McNeely’s central casting role as the life of the party, in the beginning he was more passive player than star. “Carolyn Stolman–the film festival’s founder–and I shared some mutual friends in LA, so she reached out to me.” For years, McNeely was both missionary and mascot for Sonoma’s film festival; two years ago he was made executive director after a dustup between the board and the festival’s previous principals. “It started off as a matter of necessity, after a few years of rather questionable management,” he suggests. “Our festival was in a compromised state, and we went from having a deficit to coming out of that circumstance. We were put into jeopardy,” he says. “Red ink is management’s fault. Everyone hates to go out and raise money. That’s not very fun. But if I ask you to give, I’m not going to ask you to help pay my groceries. I’m going to ask you to either start a program or expand a program.” Rehashing the old managerial dispute seems to rattle McNeely, and he takes a long pull on his beer. But then the sweetness descends again, and he leans in, smiling. “We’re getting to a point where we’re sustainable,” he says of his film festival. “We need to build the film society membership so that people understand what we’re doing and why. To build interest, we do monthly events. Monthly events are important. I’d like to see all our events fully attended. We operate in the black, we’re able to pay a staff. But we have other things we want to do.”
Like help fund the high school media arts program. This year the board granted teacher Peter Hansen—the entrepreneurial high school film maven—$25,000 to run his labs. “It’s unusual when a nonprofit gives away money, but we’ve done that for 11 years,” McNeely says. “Other than ticket sales and festival pass sales, our money comes from the generosity of our board, from local and national sponsors, and from grants. But,” he adds, “it’s challenging.”
The waitress descends with an array of beautiful foods and the table groans with the excess. There’s tempura and a bowl of warm edamame, there’s a clear soup, a swirl of fragrant miso in its depths. For me, he has ordered the Asian chop salad, and for himself, a platter of sushi. The fish looks delicious, rainbowed across the narrow plate in bright hues. “The food here is so well presented,” McNeely says pleasantly. “All the ingredients are so fresh.” You sense that this is a man accustomed to fine things in life, his precise manners bespeak evidence of good schooling. But his professional life seems to have a more casual vibe. “I’d been fired from a bank in New York and had realized I was not the archetypical banker,” McNeely says of his early career, brushing a bit of long hair from his face, “so I got a little production company going.” Later, on a whim, he and his wife, Rosemary, moved to Sonoma, ready to take a shot at a different kind of life. That was 20 years ago, and from there, things get kind of hazy. He was and still is a partner in a fancy San Francisco restaurant, a white-tablecloth joint called Le Colonial. Buying into the restaurant business is the proverbial tell of a rich man, and McNeely alludes briefly to a happy accident of provenance. “I’ve been very fortunate and very lucky in my life,” he admits, dipping a tempura prawn into sauce. “I came from a wonderful family. I’ve had a million opportunities.” Whether a bit of a rainy day fund followed him into adult life is unclear, but it appears that he’s well situated now. It is rumored, in fact, that he refuses the salary associated with his position as the film festival’s director; it’s whispered that he gives all his time away gratis.
This year the festival’s headliner is the iconic John Waters, he of the pencil mustache and the transgressive cult hit Hairspray. He will be feted at the film festival’s big Saturday night party, where he’ll perform his unique brand of comedy in a 60-minute soliloquy called “A Filthy World.” “It’s genius,” McNeely says of Waters’ newest show and career. “He’s wonderfully quirky.” Of course, the John Waters milieu attracts its own demographic, and McNeely is jazzed about its inclusion. “One of the core elements of programing we are exploring and embracing is the whole LGBT culture, and John Waters is obviously someone who supports this whole movement.” That’s the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender culture, for those who have recently roused from a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber, and Waters is sort of its mascot. The Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke, John Waters is no shrinking violet. He’s been poking the sleeping bear of mainstream American culture since he was a kid equipped with a soundless 8mm-camera, and he’s not going to dial it back for Sonoma. And that’s the whole point, if you’re Kevin McNeely: to smash through conventions and let in some damn light. He’s a live-and-let-live kind of guy.
McNeely is a film buff, but he’s something else, too. His role is one best seen through a wide-angle lens. He’s a cultural ambassador, a facilitator of fun, a front man and a fall guy and a friend of the famous. He deeply believes in the power of film, its capacity to incite and provoke change. “We try to bring interesting films that will cause conversation, that will talk to social causes, that will address different people’s ideologies,” McNeely says. “We’re trying to bring something that’s cultural, unique and diversified to an attractive
environment where you’re also able to enjoy food and wine.”
Ninety minutes have passed, the check has arrived, and so we stop where we started: with the juice.