Story David Bolling
Marc and Brenda Lhormer have already been down to L.A. talking with studio people, agents, directors, producers, the known and not-so-well-known people who stitch together a vast swath of the nation’s entertainment tapestry.
“We’re talking Netflix, and Amazon, and Paramount, Fox Searchlight. All the people who may have the award-type movies. So the conversation switches every year around mid-July, and we flip over to, ‘Now we’re hunting.’”
This is said by Marc and Brenda, alternately, as they pass each sentence back and forth like a hot potato.
And by now, their team of two 20-something screeners have looked at, between them, approximately 1,000 films, most of them submitted.
“They probably screen out 650,” says Marc.
“They save our butts,” says Brenda.
“We watch 350,” says Marc. “And of the 350, we’ll end up picking about 80. And then we’re out seeking some movies that haven’t been submitted but we hear great things about. We’ll get another 10 that way.”
“And we’ll watch them,” adds Brenda.
“And then,” concludes Marc, “we’ll get the final 10 or 12, the bigger, high-profile movies from our studio relationships for award season.”
“Yeah,” adds Brenda, “and then we’ll watch all those.”
If by now you have the impression that the Lhormers start and finish each other’s sentences, you’d be absolutely right. It’s a lot like verbal tennis.
Somehow it’s not annoying, not even, apparently, to them. They feel like they could be the perfect testimonial couple for eHarmony.com. But they didn’t meet online and there are obvious superficial differences. Brenda invariably looks fresh, meticulously made-up, understatedly stylish, like she had just stepped out of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, outfitted with a dazzling smile and a warm glow.
Marc is more rumpled, less formal, more reserved and more frequently barefoot. They are both formidably intelligent, fiercely focused and very well organized, which may be the single most necessary trait when you’re organizing a film festival for roughly 100 films in four cities, 12 venues, with 10,000 total attendants, 500 volunteers and a budget of almost $6 million.
The festival in question is not the Sonoma International Film Festival, which they directed for seven years, but the Napa Valley Film Festival, a substantially bigger, richer, more elegant, sprawling and, let’s be honest, more successful festival than the one they left.
The Napa festival, which they launched in 2011, may have been a factor in their leaving Sonoma, but it’s a touchy subject—there are tender feelings on all sides—and for the Lhormers, who still live in and love Sonoma, the past is now simply prologue.
They view themselves as being “Bi-Valley,” a status that conveys dual citizenship, of sorts, and an absence of the petty (and largely illusory) rivalries that sometimes divide California’s two most iconic and parallel Wine Country regions.
But before we go any deeper into the Napa festival, a fundamental question demands to be answered: Why do it?
In the past 20 years there have been close to 10,000 film festivals held in the United States. As of 2013, about 3,000 were active. Considering the fact that, among all 50 states, there are only about 3,000 counties, that’s a remarkable number of film festivals—almost one for every county in the country.
The Lhormers consider that to be an eminently fair question. And they admit it’s a very big challenge.
“It requires the partnership and participation of so many people and organizations, across such a wide spectrum of different industries and skill sets,” Marc says. “And there needs to be a very compelling vision, which Brenda and I had, and people were drawn to that vision and wanted to be a part of it.”
So what’s the vision?
The answer to that question is the key to understanding why the Napa Valley Film Festival came to be, and why it has been so successful.
There were, the Lhormers say, three interconnected questions that had to have answers, sort of like a riddle from Middle Earth.
First question: What does the Napa Valley need? It already has great wine and great food. So what doesn’t it have? By happy circumstance, people in Napa were asking themselves that very question, and the Arts Council Napa Valley conducted a study that concluded, first, film was the art form most under-represented in the community and, second, there was no big, signature event that united the valley.
So, says Marc, “the idea of a film festival was very compelling to the chambers of commerce, to the visitors bureau, to the board of supervisors. And this was happening just as the city of Napa was growing its new personality.”
So, if a film festival could be the valley’s signature event, who would do it? That’s the second question.
Some people, the Lhormers say, were waiting for Francis Ford Coppola to start one. “Because, then you’ve got a big, local celebrity name, like De Niro when Tribeca started in New York.”
And of course, Marc adds, people could be expected to ask, “Who the hell are Marc and Brenda?”
Adds Brenda, “It’s like, we’re not Robert De Niro, we sure ain’t Francis.” And there was no indication Coppola was even interested.
To which Marc, parries, speaking from the Napa perspective. “Well, they made Bottle Shock, and that’s fun, but they live over in Sonoma.”
(Bottle Shock, if you’re new to the planet, was the Lhormer’s 2008 indie film about the Judgment of Paris wine competition, and starred Alan Rickman, Chris Pine and Bill Pullman.)
Which leads to the third question: Why would Hollywood care? And that’s a key issue for a festival with aspirations for the visibility and success that will attract industry interest.
But, clearly, the film industry doesn’t need another festival. “So,” says Marc, “we really had to think about that, and we actually came up with something that was pretty compelling.”
Looking at a calendar, the Lhormers could see there were 50 to 80 film festivals every single weekend of the year.
“It’s an awfully crowded calendar,” says Marc. “but as we were thinking about the flow of the industry, we recognized that there is a flow to the ecosystem of the film world, and it kicks off every year at Sundance in January. It matches the calendar cycle, and anybody with a new movie, like us with Bottle Shock,wants to premier at Sundance in January. The studios are all there looking to see what’s the fresh batch, you know, it’s like a salmon hatch. Then, if there are really great movies, they may be releasing them in the fall at the end of the year, and especially at the very high- profile Thanksgiving weekend, and that’s the end of the cycle.”
The Lhormers, like everyone, acknowledge that Sundance kicks off the year, and then South by Southwest happens in March, Tribeca is in April, and Cannes comes in May. But what festival, they asked themselves, closes the year? Is there one that everyone would agree on?
The Lhormers asked all their industry friends, and everyone told them, says Marc, “No. There isn’t really one festival in a really cool place, where we as studios, with high-profile films, would like to showcase our films and our talent one last time before they come out in theaters Thanksgiving weekend.”
That, the Lhormers decided, is what they were going to do. They would personally curate a great set of films that the public and the industry can enjoy with the great food and wine in Napa Valley just before the Thanksgiving weekend.
“With our studio partners, which is what will bring in the high-profile stuff and the talent,” says Marc, “we can be that final showcase of their films that they’re trying to position for potential awards consideration. That was the plan, and we got positive response from year zero.”
So, it worked?
“We got Napa Valley engaged, we got Hollywood engaged,” Marc says, “and then it was just a matter of putting it out to all the various business partners, and then the seasonal staff and the volunteers and just get people to get on board, and help us now deliver on that value proposition. And people responded.
After eight years, you can’t argue with success. But you have to ask how the public responds to a festival strung along Highway 29, with venues divided between four separate towns.
The question brings the Lhormers straight to an important tangent, because there is, when you think about it, already a signature Napa Valley event that has been going on for 37 years and has raised $180 million for local nonprofits.
“It’s Auction Napa Valley,” Marc agrees, “and yes, it’s amazing. But at the end of the day, it’s a relatively small number of very affluent people, many from Texas, who love to come in and outbid each other. It’s awesome, but it’s not something for 50,000 people to participate in.”
So the Lhormers decided early on, their film festival would be inclusive on both price and geography, incorporating the four principal towns in the valley—Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. So, at one level it’s the antithesis of Sonoma’s intimate, walkable film festival, but at another level it’s a skein of attractions and venues that links four communities together.
Still, it’s a staggeringly complicated business equation. How have the Lhormers managed to master it?
Brenda explains, “I went to Stanford, he went to Yale. We’re very good multi-tasking project managers. We’re both extremely detail-oriented and we’re very passionate and organized, and we’ve learned through our careers how to manage multiple projects and juggle a million balls at the same time (her first job out of college was with the L.A. Olympics). I actually enjoy it. I like the fact that I know every day is going to be different, and that I have all these different projects that I have to see through.”
Prophetically, they met at a Palo Alto event production company called “Amazing Events.” Marc applied for a job, Brenda hired him and the rest is film festival history.
There is, of course, more to the Lhormer vision than Hollywood Celebrities Meet Napa Wine Billionaires Along with Just Plain Folks. There are the kids, about 4,000 of them.
“The other thing we were committed to right from the get-go was the student education stuff,” Marc says. “We thought, if we have all these connections, and we’re bringing in these incredible films, especially the documentaries, let’s bring that stuff as curriculum into the schools. Let’s open the eyes of local kids who never really get the exposure to this kind of stuff.”
Brenda adds, “We’re reaching about 4,000 kids a year now. We’ve got three field trips that we do during the week of the festival, where the kids come to one different location, depending on what town they’re in, then we bring the filmmakers into the classrooms to students who have already seen the film, so they’re prepped for their hour-long conversation with the filmmakers. Then we introduced hands-on workshops; we just did our first film camp this year, and we do other special programs with students throughout the year. So that just keeps growing and growing, and will continue to grow as we get more financial support.”
If the success of a film festival could be measured just by how many young minds were opened to a wider world, then it looks like Napa Valley would have to be considered a success.
But it doesn’t hurt that the festival also attracts its fair share of A-List Hollywood celebrities, like Will Ferrell, Matthew McConaughey, Kurt Russell, Colin Farrell, Kevin Costner, Zoey Deutch, Ana de Armas, Tyler Florence (see sidebar) and many more.
Is that enough incentive to take on this mind-bending challenge?
“We always want to challenge ourselves and take risks and do something that will improve other peoples lives,” says Brenda. “We want to offer people an experience that they might not ever have had before and introduce them to new stories and concepts and people that they might not meet without being able to participate in an event like this. But what it takes from the people who start it, and then run it, and I’m including our team here, is an unbelievable dedication to the vision, and passion that is undying and never-ending, and a desire every day to be better and work toward something that will amaze and astound and make people happy. And that’s what gets you up every day to do this, because it is so not easy.