It wasn’t the wine that lured me to Wine Country. It was film. At the time, this seemed like an inexplicable state of affairs, since I lived in Los Angeles, then the mecca of film production. As filmmaking has scattered to the four corners of the earth, or at least those places with access to digital technology and tax incentives, Wine Country has steadily been vinting its own film culture.
By 2005, I was happily ensnared, sloshing through our local film fest and behind the camera producing more shorts than Fruit of the Loom.
Long in the lead among those cultivating this trend are Brenda and Marc Lhormer, film producers themselves, who once upon a time grew Sonoma’s own film fest into a world class affair and have since improved upon the concept with their Napa Valley Film Festival, now in its third year. What kind of wood did they use for its rootstock? Hollywood, of course.
This year, a cavalcade of stars will invade Napa’s various environs, from Colin Farrell to Adam West, TV’s iconic Batman (they seemed to be ranked by their relative wattage according to the size of their mugshot on the fest’s Tumblr page – West is wee, though a cult favorite). Suffice it to say, the Lhormers know how to put on a film festival. It’s essentially Wine Country’s answer to Cannes, Sundance and Disneyland all in one. And a river of wine runs through it.
Back in the day, I wrote an annual article on the Sonoma iteration of their festival, which occasioned my pilgrimage from Los Angeles while stringing for the San Francisco Chronicle. These were back in the relatively flush dot-com days when the publicity team would wine and dine you and make sure you made it safely back to your hotel room. And sometimes they’d be there in the morning to hold your hair while you filed a column of puke into a publication of pure porcelain.
Naturally, when I finally moved to Sonoma, I assumed the wining, dining and hotel rooms would persist. Not quite. Real life has a habit of intruding upon the best-laid plans of mice and media. Now, I restrict my film festering to a spectator sport in the truest sense. I’m not the only one – festivals, at heart, are film marketing machines and come with their own raft of analysts predicting performance, potential distribution deals and numbers – from those for butts in seats to the industry’s favorite kind, those with dollar signs in front of them. They’re also more important to indie filmmakers than ever, since the big bet blockbuster mentality has finally consumed Hollywood whole. Few films without a cape and spandex will ever see the inside of a theater unless it’s at a film festival.
Film fests are like galleries for emerging artists and the model has proven rife for proliferation. Hence the multitude of niche film fests the world over. Pick a genre and it’s got its own festival. Sci-fi, horror, paranormal romance, festivals dedicated to short films, very short films, regional selections and even, I imagine, a few diseases.
Google “niche film festival” and a flurry of blog posts aggregating the “10 best” and the “do’s and don’ts” of the game will proliferate the page. Cresting it, of course, is a Google Adwords ad for the Napa Valley Film Festival.