Kevin McNeely reclines on a worn blue couch in the Sonoma International Film Festival’s headquarters, located in sunny, stone-walled office space on the southeast corner of the Plaza. He wears khaki pants and a yellow cashmere sweater with the sleeves pushed up. Luki, a fluffy poodle-shih tzu mix, jumps up onto his lap.
Everything about McNeely conveys comfort: the blue couch, the yellow sweater, the fluffy dog, the sunny office and, above all, the welcoming smile he seems to wear constantly and effortlessly.
“Kevin is a character, and a gentle and kind man,” says Jennifer Gray, SIFF’s director of sponsorship and development.
Gray, McNeely and Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, who helps manage programming and public relations, are sharing this corner room during the final, hectic days before the festival begins Wednesday. Its turret-style windows look out over the busy Plaza below. The phone rings steadily, and several more staff members are abuzz with activity in an adjoining room.
They have their work cut out for them: The 17th annual film festival will bring more than 3,200 visitors over five days to see 106 films from 22 countries, showing in a dozen different venues on or around the Plaza. Organizing all that is an immense undertaking.
But McNeely, 61, seems perfectly calm. This isn’t his first rodeo – he joined SIFF’s board of directors 10 years ago, and became executive director in 2008 – but it’s definitely a labor of love and, one might expect, cause for considerable nervousness.
“I’ve always been involved in some way with the arts,” he said, explaining why he dedicates so much time, energy and money every year to help make SIFF what it is. “It’s a wonderful way to give back to the community. And our town deserves a world-class film festival.”
With well over 1,000 film festivals around the country, it takes a lot to stand out from the pack. McNeely believes SIFF stands out for a few reasons, including its innovative programming, its walkability, Sonoma’s incomparable surroundings and the festival’s informal and easygoing atmosphere. He also points to local touches, such as the 50-plus host families who provide accommodations for more than 200 filmmakers between April 2 and April 6.
But he and other SIFF organizers are especially proud of the Sonoma Valley High School Media Arts program, which the film festival supports.
“We hang our hat on it,” he said of the program. “These kids are going to really top colleges and universities to specialize in filmmaking.”
Originally from Minnesota, McNeely lived for two decades in New York, where he was an independent producer for ESPN. Twenty-two years ago he and his wife Rosemary settled in Sonoma – and over that time they’ve seen the film festival grow from a small local endeavor to the largest annual event in Sonoma Valley, and one of the largest in the county.
Though not a “market film festival” – a place where films are bought and sold as happens at Cannes or Sundance – organizers say SIFF has become a “launch pad” anyway, with obscure filmmakers debuting here and going on to do major work.