Sonoma International Film Festival

(Sonoma, CA. April 23, 2010) – The 13th Sonoma International Film Festival kicked off its best year ever with the Opening Night world premiere of COALS TO NEWCASTLE: THE NEW MASTERSOUNDS, FROM LEEDS TO NEW ORLEANS on Thursday, April 15, followed by an Opening Night Party featuring a roof-raising performance by The New Mastersounds – the UK funk sensation profiled in Marca Hagenstad & Aaron Dunsay’s documentary film.

In the face of the current economic climate and the untimely demise of film festivals across the country, the Sonoma International Film Festival bucked the trend this year by expanding to include two additional screening venues, three more filmmaker events, and 10 more films than last year’s Festival. Joined by over 200 visiting filmmakers, actors, jurors and film industry guests, an estimated audience of nearly 12,000 filmgoers attended 74 screenings of 40 features and 34 short films from 12 countries – with an unprecedented 17 world premieres – which played at six venues surrounding the central Sonoma Plaza.

“I think we hit the ball out of the park,” said Festival Director & Board Chair Kevin McNeely. “It was apparent that the community embraced us this year as never before, and with the help of presenting sponsors such as Dolby we plan on leveraging the success of this year’s Festival to give us long-term sustainability. Films and filmmakers came to us from all over the world, and this has put us on the map as a truly international destination film festival.”

Actor and supermodel Lauren Hutton was celebrated at a sold-out tribute at the historic Sebastiani Theatre on Saturday, April 17, in which Festival Director Kevin McNeely presented her with the Spotlight Award in recognition of her four decades as both an international fashion icon and star of the silver screen, including her role in the Closing Night film THE JONESES. A Spotlight Gala at the newly revamped Ramekins Culinary School, Event Center & Inn was followed by a Filmmakers’ Dinner & Bash held at Little Switzerland, featuring performances by local bands Static People and The Dont’s.

“The Festival was so amazing this year,” said Program Director Cevin Cathell. “It seemed that all the elements came together; the finest films and filmmakers, enthusiastic audiences and fabulous events converged in Sonoma this past weekend. This was a true love fest.”

After a sold-out Closing Night screening of THE JONESES on Sunday, April 18, at which Lauren Hutton and producer Doug Mankoff were interviewed onstage by Cevin Cathell, the four-day Festival culminated in a rollicking Awards Ceremony & Closing Night Party at which 14 juried prizes and three Audience Choice Awards were presented to films and filmmakers from around the world.

Top prizes went to independent feature films from the US, Canada, Venezuela and the United Kingdom. Paul Cotter’s UK/US coproduction, the bittersweet comedy BOMBER, took home the Best Feature Film award. “This is great news,” said Cotter by e-mail, who was represented at the Festival by producer George Rush. “I'm thrilled!”

Charles-Olivier Michaud’s riveting war correspondent drama SNOW & ASHES from Quebec won Best International Feature Film, and Haik Gazarian’s passionate WWII romance VENEZZIA from Venezuela received a Special Jury Award for Outstanding Historical Feature Film. Filmmakers and actors from two of the three top films were in attendance to receive their awards, including Québécois producer/actor David-Alexandre Coiteux and Mexican superstar Alfonso Herrera, who drew his own crowds of adoring fans throughout the Festival.

Two other independent feature films were also honored: Sean Dillon & Curtis Krick’s interracial mockumentary SOMETHING BLUE received the New Belgium Indie Feature Film Award; and married co-directors Daniel Beahm & Erika Randall Beahm received the Showcase Award for the world premiere of their labor of love, the dance-infused LEADING LADIES.

In what may have been the strongest year for documentaries in recent memory, five documentary features stood out and took home top prizes. The Best Documentary Award was shared between Jim Bigham & Mark Moorman’s ‘handi-capable’ music doc FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE and CITY LAX: AN URBAN LACROSSE STORY, the latter featuring lacrosse-playing underprivileged youth who joined director Gabriela Cowperthwaite at the film’s world premiere screening. “From all of us at For Once In My Life, it is truly is an honor to be recognized at your Festival,” said producer Cathy Bigham. “We are over the moon,” said Cowperthwaite. “Thank you for making this such an amazing event for City Lax!"

From among half a dozen food-themed documentaries, Roger Sherman’s portrait of New York culinary icon Danny Meyer, THE RESTAURATEUR, was named Best Food Doc. Another food-related film, the world premiere of Joe Cross & Kurt Engfehr’s FAT, SICK & NEARLY DEAD, was awarded the Turning Point Award for its life-changing impact on both audiences and the film’s subjects, two of whom each lost 200 pounds through juice-fasting and received standing ovations at the screening.

A Special Jury Award for Outstanding Historical Documentary was given to Duane Baughman & Johnny O'Hara’s BHUTTO, which chronicles the trailblazing life and shocking death of twice-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mark Milton, co-host of KSVY’s Sports Zone, was on hand to present the Best Sports Doc Award to local filmmaker Colin Blackshear for his extreme skateboarding film SECOND NATURE, edited by Sonoma resident and Festival regular Brodie Giles.

So many excellent short films were screened this year that the Shorts Jurors felt compelled to increase the number of award categories. THE HIROSAKI PLAYERS earned director Jeff Sousa Best Dramatic Short for his film about a Japanese father-son theater duo. “We enjoyed our guests immensely,” said hosts Alex & Sally Fernandez on Monday, who housed Sousa and HIROSAKI editor Michael Hill, “and the whole festival was a blast…They won for their category so we had a nice champagne celebration with them last night.”

Best Comedy Short Film went to Peter Calloway’s hilarious date movie THINK TANK. “I just wanted to say thank you very much for everything at the festival this weekend,” said THINK TANK producer Jon Deiner, who attended with Calloway. “It was a fantastic set-up and everything ran so smoothly. You guys have a great festival, which I'm sure will continue to get better and better each year!”

Best International Short Film was awarded to Palestinian director Bassam Jarbawi’s clever CHICKEN HEADS (original-language title: ROOS DJAJ), the DVD screener of which was originally handed to Program Director Cevin Cathell on a bus at the Sundance Film Festival. The environmentally-conscious THE INCIDENT AT TOWER 37 earned director Chris Perry the award for Best Animated Short Film.

Three Audience Choice Awards were presented following the tabulation of ballots collected throughout the Festival. John Jeffcoat’s crowd-pleasing, cross-cultural romantic comedy OUTSOURCED was chosen as the audience favorite feature film. CITY LAX: AN URBAN LACROSSE STORY and FAT, SICK & NEARLY DEAD tied for audience favorite documentary. Barton Landsman’s humorous rough & tumble BANANA BREAD and Greg Helvey’s Oscar®-nominated KAVI tied for audience favorite short film, with an honorable mention to Mark Kirkland’s Battle of the Bulge drama A LETTER FROM HOME, starring Sonoma Valley High School graduate Brendan Fleming.

The Sonoma Plaza was the place to be during the Festival, surrounded by the eye-catching Festival banners designed by Michael Wilde & colleagues of ICA, who designed all of year’s Festival marketing materials, including the new logo, poster and Festival trailer. “I think the poster is gorgeous,” said award-winning LEADING LADIES co-director Daniel Beahm, “I love the film/vineyard theme and I think it's very tastefully done.”

For the first time the City of Sonoma granted the Film Festival permission to set up the Comcast Backlot Big White Tent on the north side of City Hall: an ultra-lux living room lounge featuring great food and wine of Sonoma Valley. The Backlot became the central meeting place for filmmakers and film-goers throughout the Festival. Epicurean Director Kathleen Hill coordinated food purveyors while wines were coordinated by the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. Festival sponsors Jelly Belly and popchips provided samples to the crowds. All furnishings in The Backlot were provided by Wine Country Party & Events. “Our company has such a variety of products, I was glad to see the most elegant furnishings we have featured in The Backlot,” said Wine Country president Marshall Bauer. “We were glad we could turn it up a notch for the film crowd.”

The Festival further celebrated food and wine with several special events. Presentations included a pairing of Ellen Frankenstein’s documentary EATING ALASKA with a short film from The Alaska Wilderness League, at which wild Alaskan salmon by Taku River Reds was served. Director Frankenstein was particularly impressed with the quality of the sound provided by Dolby in conjunction with Meyer Sound. “We have screened this film at crazy events with bear stew and fuzzy faced homesteaders as well as lower 48 film festivals,” said Frankenstein, “and it has never sounded so great.”

Jamie Kutch was on hand to share Kutch wine with the audience for Stefan Sargent’s locally produced documentary PINOT: SONOMA DREAMS, which follows Kutch’s journey from Wall Street to wine-maker. In celebration of Sonoma’s own Fred MacMurray, a special screening of the 1944 film DOUBLE INDEMNITY was introduced by his daughter Kate MacMurray, who was on-hand to share anecdotes about her famous father and to invite the audience to sample MacMurray Ranch wines and to join the newly formed MacMurray Ranch Wine Club. The New Belgium Indie Lounge, housed at the Sonoma Community Center, featured food & beerpairings by Catherine Driggers of Olive & Vine.

Lauren Hutton joined the filmmakers for an afternoon Industry Mixer at Sebastiani Winery on Friday, April 16, the 17 world premieres were celebrated at a boisterous “Cheers to World Premieres” party hosted by The Valley Wine Shack. This year’s Festival also featured a special screening of a film program within a film program, LUNAFEST 2010, which showcased a collection of 10 short films celebrating the talents and stories of women, sponsored by Luna Bars and preceded by a reception at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art on Friday, April 16.

To complement the films, a series of panel discussions was held at the Sonoma Community Center, including the informative “From Script to Screen” and the ever-popular “Pitch Panel,” at which aspiring filmmakers were given two minutes to present their film ideas to a panel of Hollywood producers, including David Garber from Lantern Lane Entertainment and Derek Power & Ilene Kahn Power from Kahn Power Pictures. New this year was an “Ask the Expert” session with John Loose of Dolby Laboratories and “Yoga for Filmmakers” at En-er-gy Fitness Studio with yoga instructor & filmmaker Elise Lorimer.

Complimentary accommodations were provided to visiting filmmakers, jurors, media guests and sponsors by nearly 50 partner hotels, hospitality partners and host families throughout the Sonoma Valley. Complimentary ground transportation from Bay Area airports and between Festival events was provided by Kovacs Motors, which loaned the Festival a variety of sleek luxury vehicles, and the Native Sons of the Golden West, whose dedicated volunteer drivers kept in touch via cell phones provided by AT&T to make sure that Festival guests got to their screenings and Lauren Hutton got back to her suite at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.

“Many thanks for a strong festival,” said returning filmmaker Peter Burns, director of the short film QUAND TU VEUX (WHENEVER, WHATEVER), who perhaps deserves the final word. “The films we watched were all very good and the shorts in my section were excellent. We all had a fabulous time. I know how hard you worked to pull it off in this tough economic climate. I was honored to be a part of it all. I hope to submit again for SIFF 2011. Lights. Camera. SIFF. Action! Forever!!!”

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