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First film fest was modest

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Nearly two decades ago, Carolyn Stolman had an idea.

The Sonoma Valley resident, already an accomplished businesswoman, thought it would be fun to host a film festival in beautiful Sonoma. But unlike most people, she and her husband, Ed Stolman, had the connections, knowledge and wherewithal to make it happen.

“They were the big force behind it” in those early years, recalls Lee Jay Olness, who took an active role at the time and remains on the board of directors to this day – probably the only person who has helped organize the festival every year since its inception.

She and Carolyn Stolman knew each other through another group, Sister Cities of Sonoma. And as Olness tells it, when Stolman decided to get the ball rolling, she approached Olness, a travel agent, and said, “You have a travel agency and you probably know a lot of people. … My idea is to bring the movie makers in here and house them here.”

And through efforts like this the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, as it was then known, was born.

That first year was a modest one, Olness said. “It was maybe bringing in 30 filmmakers, if that, and their guests.” Her job was accommodating the filmmakers as they arrived in town, “finding places for them to stay, and hopefully for free, because we didn’t have any money really.”

As the festival grew, more and more people helped out, either for a single year or a stretch of years. Jerry Seltzer, another local, was instrumental early on, particularly as an underwriter, said Steve Kyle, who came on board in “year two.”

By year three, he said, “Carolyn’s cancer came back and she had to back away” from the role she’d been taking. (Stolman died in 2004.) So she and Valerie Walters, another founder, convinced Kyle to take over the event for that year and the next.

“It was a pretty loosey-goosey organization in the very early days,” Kyle said. Though there was much enthusiasm for a film festival in Sonoma, “No one really knew quite how to go about it very well.”

Soon after, Marc and Brenda Lhormer took over management of the event, “and they ran it up to well beyond what I was capable of doing,” Kyle said. The couple helped transition the film festival from an all-volunteer model to something with a more solid business footing, including a full-time management team.

But personality conflicts were causing friction, and a half-dozen years ago, the Lhormers left. That’s when Kevin McNeely, who was “always in the background,” as Kyle put it, took over as executive director and has been at the helm ever since.

“Which in looking back, was really the best move,” Kyle said. Today the film festival is “a lot more sophisticated.”

“It’s grown quite enormously. And I think Kevin should get all the credit for that.”

Of course the event has had its ups and downs over the years – but looking at the general trend, it’s mostly ups.

As Olness noted, originally the entire program fit on a single flier and ran in a single theater: the Sebastiani. Seventeen years later, the four-day event – which begins Wednesday, April 2, and ends the following Sunday – features 105 films in a dozen venues, requires a full staff to organize and run, and draws top creative talent from all over the world.

“It’s a diamond in the rough, Sonoma,” said Steve Shor, a movie industry veteran who now is an independent film producer and the program director of Sonoma’s film festival. “We’re blessed to have this beautiful setting. The canvass is there. We just needed to amp up the films.”

That’s what Shor set out to do – and as part of that goal he advised a name change to help rebrand the bigger, better festival.

“I said, ‘Change the name from Sonoma Valley Film Festival to Sonoma International Film Festival, and I’ll bring you the world.’”

The organizers did so, and Shor intensified the programming. “I try to add just a little bit more, a bigger star, every year,” he said. “And this year is just pivotal stuff.”

That includes the festival opener, “Dom Hemingway” starring Jude Law, and its closer, “Belle,” by British director Amma Asante.

Asante, who will be present for the closing night celebration, “is just getting rave reviews all over the place,” Shor said. “I believe that this film will be given Oscar consideration at the end of the year.”

Shor also mentioned a Spanish movie, “Tasting Menu,” whose young star Claudia Bassols will be in attendance for the Thursday showing. “Tasting Menu” points up two major trends in this year’s festival: several high-quality culinary films are included, as well as a broad and deep selection of foreign films.

Notably, among those are several Spanish-language films included in Vamos al Cine, a Latino cinema program at La Luz and other nearby venues – with showings offered at affordable rates for Sonoma Valley’s Latino population.

As evidence of the importance of these foreign films, consulates from the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Italy will be attending SIFF this year, Shor said.

“Years ago, we would not be able to have gotten these types of films,” he said. But today, the Sonoma International Film Festival is an “important cultural festival to be at.”

“I have enough this year to blow away any other regional film festivals,” he said.

After 17 years, Olness said, there’s no way to list all of the people – including the hundreds of annual volunteers – whose work, past and present, has made the Sonoma film festival what it is today.

But Carolyn Stolman “would be so proud of where it’s come,” she said.