How Sonoma International Film Festival’s new leadership prepares for opening night
The Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday, with a new executive director and artistic director leading the charge.
The festival will span five days, from March 22 to 26, the culmination of over six months of planning. Even in the days leading up to opening night, the festival’s leadership is working around the clock to ensure everything comes together for a festival that includes 118 films, four screening venues, four major parties, culinary events, over 200 volunteers, appearances by actors and directors, plus, hundreds of patrons.
“It’s all about putting the festival together, and then keeping it all together before it falls apart,” Carl Spence, festival artistic director, said.
It’s Spence’s first year with the Sonoma festival, but it’s certainly not his first cinematic rodeo. He has 28 years of film festival experience, and has served as the co-director and artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival from 2003 to 2016, and then senior programmer for the Miami Film Festival from 2017 to 2022, among other roles. He has also served as a jurist at the Sundance Film Festival, The Berlin Film Festival and South by Southwest Film Festival.
Ginny Krieger is also new to her role as executive director, but she’s been a longtime leader within the festival, working the event since 2001. One thing that hasn’t changed is her nerves.
“My level of concern and nervousness and twitchiness is probably the same as it’s always been,” Krieger “We always feel like we’re extremely prepared and then there’s always a few curveballs.”
She has been the event’s administrative director, assistant director and co-director prior to stepping fully into the executive director’s chair. Her current role demands more involvement with local officials, something Krieger has enjoyed. Mayor Sandra Lowe will help launch the festival by welcoming audience members on opening night, at the request of Krieger. Wednesday night features the world premiere of “Jules,” starring Sir Ben Kingsley, who will be in attendance alongside castmates Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoe Winters, Jade Quon and director Marc Turtletaub.
After longtime festival leader Kevin McNeely stepped back last year, Krieger and Spence stepped into the limelight and have been traveling the globe seeking films and planning the festival’s many events since August.
Spence has been traveling between Sonoma and Valencia, Spain, where he moved during the pandemic, so he’s done much of his work from Europe. He landed back in Sonoma March 7 so he can focus on the festival and the new offerings presented during the 26th annual event.
That includes a focus on LGBTQ+ cinema paired with the festival’s inaugural GAY-LA Disco Party, set for Thursday, March 23, which has been selling quickly. There will also be a ¡Viva España! Party to feature the culture, films, and heritage of Spain, paired with Gloria Ferrer wines, music by the Carlos Herrera Trio and paella on Friday, March 24.
Aside from the time-difference, a challenge Spence has faced that’s unique to SIFF is its timing. Late March, just weeks after the Oscars, can be an odd time to release new films, making unique premieres harder to find. But this year’s festival includes nine premieres, in addition to a wide array of feature-length and short films spanning big-name productions to student films. With a rich lineup locked down, the festival’s leadership is busy nailing down last-minute details and preparing for an unintended surprises in the days leading up to the big event.
“Sometimes it’s the smaller things that take up a lot of your time,” Krieger said. “It’s chaotic but perfect.”
Krieger remembers the early years of the festival that buzzed with chaotic energy, taking satisfaction as those efforts became more refined with wisdom and experience. According to her, back in the early 2000s, film festivals weren’t as widespread and they didn’t attract as many international films or guests.
But with more ambitious programming comes hiccups, although the team is well prepared thanks to an army of volunteers.
“Our motto is always ‘Never let them see you sweat,’” Krieger said.
The festival also features food and wine events as well as parties that garner widely expressed excitement from guests. Acclaimed chef Martin Yan will host a highly anticipated food event on Thursday, March 23, as well as chef Joanne Weir on Saturday, March 25.
New this year, each film will come with pamphlets that highlight what’s special about the project. The festival has also expanded to include Prime Cinema in the Springs and Hanna Center, along with a physical box office location just off the Plaza, at 117 W. Napa St.
As she readies for her first year leading the festival, Krieger is eager for five days of cinematic magic. She’s especially impressed with the mix of content curated this year, which includes films from 32 countries.
“It’s definitely progressed with the quality of films,” Krieger said. “The quality of films this year has is on a totally different level.”
Contact the reporter Rebecca Wolff at email@example.com.