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Small and Highly Desirable, Nantucket Film Festival Plays to its Strengths

Small and Highly Desirable, Nantucket Film Festival Plays to its Strengths

By island standards, it was a startling sight for a Sunday afternoon: an endless queue that wrapped around the Nantucket High School for the Nantucket Film Festival’s third annual All-Star Comedy Roundtable. “This is the longest line I’ve ever seen in Nantucket,” marveled Los Angeles-based screenwriter Steven Fife as he drove up to the school, “and I’ve been coming here for years.”

Whether “here” meant Nantucket the film festival or the island was unclear and ultimately, irrelevant: In its 16th year, the NFF remains as much a part of its historic location as its weather-grayed clapboard shingles and cobblestone streets.

And, just as Nantucket residents are obliged to newly side their homes each year and grit their teeth as their cars’ finely tuned suspensions bounce down Main Street, NFF attendees take the occasional annoyance in stride.

Yes, the roundtable was oversold. A program typo misstated a film’s start time by a half hour. NBC’s Brian Williams compared the quirky film-schedule layout to interpreting “a periodic table of the elements.” And when “Cars 2” writer Ben Queen stepped on stage to accept his Nantucket Screenwriters Award Saturday evening, the the title card projection read Sreenwriter.

At Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca, those missteps could inspire an uprising. In Nantucket, the protests began and ended with Williams’ tart but affectionate ribbing. Because, as Roundtable moderator Seth Myers might say: Really? You’re in Nantucket.

And above all, this festival still feels like Nantucket. The festival’s combination of small scale and a highly desirable audience has allowed it to pull off the neat trick of growing its base of tony sponsors (new this year: BMW and The Atlantic) and its audience (the festival broke its ticket-sales record) without a commensurate increase in bouncers and other gatekeepers.

Beyond the obvious charms of its location, the NFF means easy access — to filmmakers like Vera Farmiga, Paul Haggis and J.C. Chandon; to supportive locals (and NFF board members) like Williams and Chris Matthews, who hosted events with the goodwill and enthusiasm usually reserved for national showcases; and of course to top titles from the festival circuit like “Buck,” “Margin Call” and “Higher Ground.” And if there’s a prize for festival-sponsored libations, Nantucket took it with Scholium Project white wine and homemade strawberry-basil lime rickeys.

It also means a centerpiece like the Roundtable, which gave audiences the opportunity to witness — in a high school auditorium! — 90 minutes of good-natured and occasionally spiky sparring between Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller, Colin Quinn and Aziz Ansari, with SNL head writer Seth Myers as moderator.

And because the programmers’ primary is focus is bringing good films to Nantucket rather than chasing new ones, the festival reserves its biggest competition for screenplays (full disclosure: I was a juror this year, along with MOMA film curator Rajendra Roy and USA Today film reporter Susan Wloszczyna ). It’s a smart bet: While premiere pickings are inherently slim in late June, the 14-year-old screenplay competition has a track record that includes “Cold Souls” (2006) and “Down to the Bone” (2002).

Another smart bet: At the close of the comedy roundtable, NFF board member Ben Stiller said, “We’ll do this again next year.”

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