The Sundance Film Festival better watch its back. There’s another movie event starting to make serious waves among indie directors, documentary producers, and Hollywood’s top actors. It’s the fifth annual Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF), and this year’s it’s taking place November 11 through 15. Three hundred filmmakers are expected to descend on wine country for the affair, which features 125 new independent projects. As it takes place amongst California’s beautiful vineyards, there are more than just films to be seen; the five-day production also has a heavy culinary component to it. Here’s your back-stage pass to all of the star-studded festivities.
What to Know
The festival was founded in 2010 by the husband-and-wife team of Marc and Brenda Lhormer. As lovers of both good films and fine wine, the couple helped run the Sonoma Valley Film Festival from 2001 to 2008. They also produced the movie Bottle Shock in 2008, which recounts the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition. In 2009, the couple dreamed of starting a different kind of festival that featured film screenings, wine tastings, filmmakers and winemakers, award ceremonies, VIP hospitality lounges and celebrity chefs. Their hard work paid off. Thanks to big names like Bruce Dern and Bobby Flay expected to appear, this year’s installment promises to be one of the biggest and best yet.
In a recent conversation we had with Brenda Lhormer, she described the event as “a very rich experience. I think a lot of people don’t realize what they are actually in for.” What most people don’t know is that the events are spread throughout Napa Valley’s four towns: Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville and Napa. The distance between Calistoga and Napa is roughly a 30-minute drive, so if you’re planning to hop from wine tasting to movie screening, be sure to grab a seat on The Vine, a local bus touring service that is free to festival pass holders.
What to Do
Hoping to see the stars up close and personal? Lhormer revealed that the most obvious spot is the best place to do a little celebrity sighting. “You’ll definitely see them on the red carpet,” she said. “We have two opening-day red carpets, one in the afternoon and another one in the evening. We’re still waiting to hear which celebrity is confirmed for the screening of Carol. It’s got to be Cate Blanchett or Rooney Mara. We’re just waiting to confirm it. I’m eagerly chomping at the bit!” If you and your glass of Sauvignon Blanc can’t find a spot between all of the cameras, tasting lounges with 150 local wineries are scattered throughout the area. Want to catch a world premiere? Grab a ticket to Wednesday night’s much-anticipated debut of Somm: Into the Bottle. “This is what locals are most excited about,” Lhormer said. “The film is a sequel to the first Somm and it looks at the eight most-talked about bottles of wine in the world. Many of the somms who are in the film will be there. They are all well-known names in the Valley.” Beyond that hot ticket, foodies will want to be a part of Variety’s 10 to Taste, a day panel on the morning of November 12 where many of the region’s top chefs cook dishes inspired by iconic scenes from movies like Pulp Fiction and Julie and Julia.
Where to Stay
The festival has partnered with hotels all across the area, including The Westin Verasa Napa, Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer and Solage Calistoga. However, if you score a cottage at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Meadowood Napa Valley, you’re in for a treat. The property is one of the festival’s biggest sponsors and host to all of the documentary filmmakers participating in the NVFF competition. “Meadowood hosts our artist-in-residence program,” Lhormer explained. “We put together a series of master classes, and first-or second-time filmmakers are invited to come to Meadowood [for one-on-one mentoring sessions with industry veterans]. It’s a super popular program.” While on site, hobnob with the up-and-coming auteurs but be sure to schedule in some down time. The hotel’s state-of-the-art, all-suite spa opened on November 2. The much-anticipated sanctuary is sure to book in advance, so if you want to relax with a vine-based massage and facial, reserve your appointment now.
What Else Not to Miss
“I always tell people,” Lhormer recommended, “especially if it’s their first time at the festival, to go see a documentary. Go see a film you’ve never heard of with actors you’ve never heard of. Go to a shorts program. Watch something you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.” She hopes that event goers will experience cinema on a totally different level and walk away with a desire to start a thought-provoking conversation. She hopes this proves especially true during a day devoted entirely to Spanish language films and after a screening of Landfill Harmonic, a documentary that looks at a musical troupe from Paraguay. Lhormer is really excited about this film because the festival raised enough money to bring the group of youngsters to the premiere where they will play their instruments made from reclaimed landfill items. Two Napa gentlemen purchased the rights to Bottle Shock and are turning it into a musical. On Saturday, November 14, the duo is getting together for the first public read thru of the play. Local performers and a band will act out the scenes. The biggest party, Thursday night’s Gala, should not be missed either. “I always look forward to the Gala because it’s an incredible event with 30 chefs and 50 wineries,” Lhormer said. “I don’t plan it. I don’t even want to know anything about it. This year, I am going to close my eyes and walk in. Every year, it blows me away. It’s really a celebration and a phenomenal event.”