Surprise! A Well Run First-Year Festival -- The 1998 Newport
International Film Festival
by Mark Rabinowitz
Rolling into town, director Bennett Miller ("The Cruise") remarked that
"Newport looks like a train set come to life." An apt description on
first look. On second look, as well. The first annual Newport
International Film Festival unfolded last week, and if early reactions
are any indication, the event was a success. If the festival can
hold on to the same core staff (Exec. Director Christine Schomer,
Festival Director Nancy Donahoe, Programmer Maude Chilton, festival vet
Deena Juras and many others) and build on their already impressive
sponsor base (NORTEK, US Magazine), it should have a long life ahead.
While we missed the opening night festivities, held at one of Newport's
many gargantuan mansions, indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez and myself, along
with Miller, and a few other NYC based indie filks, made our way up to the
cradle of the Vanderbilts and the von Bulows for a weekend of films, howling
wind and the birth of a festival.
The fest staff programmed a strong lineup of films, including a
smattering of world premieres, a solid lineup of docs and a several
archival presentations, including an outdoor screening of the
Newport-set 1956 MGM musical "High Society," starring Frank Sinatra,
Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm and Louis Armstrong. World
premieres included Gary Winick's "The Tic Code," Edward Vilga's "Dead
Broke" (co-edited by Winick) and "That Was You" by Ron Lazaretti and
Reno Liberatore. In a major coup, the festival landed the world premiere
of a major Miramax fall release. "The Mighty," the first American
feature by Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song," "Funny Bones"), made its bow
at Newport and the Sharon Stone starrer has received some good press
prior to release.
The section of the fest receiving the most positive buzz were the
documentaries, with many of those programmed having won awards at other
festivals, including S.R. Bindler's "Hands on a Hardbody" (winning at
Gen Art, Austin, AFI), Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "Off
the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's" (Hamptons), Jeff Dupre's "Out of
the Past" (Sundance) and Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's "The
Brandon Teena Story" (Berlin), not to mention Miller's "The Cruise,"
which snapped up a pair of awards at Newport. An additional doc
garnering buzz at Newport was "The Hunt" by Niek Koppen. This selection
underscores the fact that over the past few years, documentaries have
become an increasingly high-profile part of the industry. Here, here!
Standouts among the archival films was a selection of jazz films
programmed by Alicia Sams, including "Jazz on a Summer Day," Bert
Stern's look at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival; "Let's Get Lost," Bruce
Webber's 1989 portrait of legendary jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet
Baker, and "Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser," Charlotte Zwerin's
1989 documentary that uses footage of the late, great pianist shot in
the sixties along with interviews with friends of Monk. In addition, the
festival programmed a selection of films brimming with jazz influences,
including Francois Truffaut's 1959 French New Wave classic "The 400
Blows"; Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), and the heavily
jazz-influenced "The Sweet Smell Of Success" directed by Alexander
Mackendrick with a script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. The film
features the music of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, who also play
supporting roles in the film. Hamilton was in town for the festival, and
played for the audience prior to a screening of "Success".
The phrase "there are too many film festivals" rings true nine times out
of ten. Each time a new festival is announced, groans are
heard, with a major complaint being that the market is growing and
there's not enough product to fill the slots at the hundreds of fests
around the world. However, every once in a while, a new fest comes along
with just the right mix of location, staff, community and programming to
make a go of it. This year's leader of the pack for new fests is most
definitely the Newport International Film Festival. The community
support was such that many of the festivals parties and receptions were
held at private homes, some the size of a city block.
In addition, festival supporter Brian Cunha - who had earlier hosted a
festival bash at his clifftop mansion - invited several filmmakers and
festival guests for a day sail on his 42' racing boat. A real treat for
the indie filmmaking crowd, most of whom are not used to outings of this
sort. At one festival party at an immense private home, the hosts (from
event sponsors NORTEK) hired performers in elaborate alien costumes to
enter the party at about 10 p.m., mingle with the guests and perform some
rather interesting blues numbers on the house piano. A sense of humor
rarely found among the major corporate sponsors at film festivals.
The closing night party - a clambake, complete with lobsters - and award
ceremony were held on Saturday night, not Sunday. A wise idea that more
festivals should follow. The Newport festival can stand to grow a bit of
course, and due partly to a rather small promotional budget, the crowds
at weekday screenings were less than overwhelming. In addition, most of
the Jazz Sidebar screenings were the last screenings of the evening,
making attending difficult for those who wish to go to the parties.
These are minor quibbles, and ones that can easily be rectified. All in
all, the fest was an overwhelmingly positive experience. If the staff
can stick together, good word of mouth spreads, and the community
remains in support of the event, all big "ifs", then it has a solid
chance to thrive.
Interestingly enough, the main problem this fest may face, is how NOT to
become a Sundance wannabe. The festival organizers steadfastly maintain
that Sundance is not what they're after. When asked, Donahoe indicated
that in terms of festivals to be modeled after, Newport is looking at
Telluride: an industry fest that remains small enough to be manageable.
Don't be surprised if in a few years Newport has attained their goal.