NBFF 2016 – “the West Coast’s Fastest-Growing Film Festival”
(Interview with CEO & Co-Founder Gregg Schwenk)
As the red carpet is getting rolled out for the 17th Newport Beach Film Festival we had a chance to speak with Gregg Schwenk, CEO and Co-Founder of the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF). He gave us some insight into the festival’s history, spoke about German film as part of the NBFF and shared some memories of the first German Spotlight Film event they hosted at the Newport Beach Film Festival years ago.
Q: The Newport Beach Film Festival is now in its 17th year. What influenced your decision to start the NBFF here in Newport Beach?
Gregg Schwenk: I grew up here in Newport Beach, and I have very deep roots here in Orange County. I had the great opportunity to travel and attend a number of other film festivals around the world and I was talking to some of the city leaders, saying, “If Palm Springs or the Hamptons or Toronto can have a major festival, I really feel that Newport Beach should have one too. It is the perfect backdrop for an international global film festival.” Luckily, they agreed, and myself and Todd Quartararo co-founded the festival in 1998, and then had our first film festival in March 1999. It was a smaller event. We had a handful of screens and a handful of movies. I think we screened about a hundred films at that time. We got a very positive feedback and very positive results financially, and from there on it just grew and we have been doing one every year since. We have grown into the largest entertainment event in Orange County and are one of the largest festivals south of Los Angeles! We’ll screen over 350 films from 50 different countries. Our overall audience last year was 55,000 people.
Q: Did you study film or were you involved in the film industry before founding the NBFF?
GS: I went to UC Berkeley, and my degree is in Political Economy. When I was at UC Berkeley, I did some extensive research work for an organization on a project about the regional impact of film production. When I came back to Southern California and ended up working on investment banking, mergers and acquisitions my work included a number of deals that were film-related because of my experience in the entertainment industry. Then I got very active here locally for the City of Newport Beach with the economic development committee and in 1998 we founded the festival.
Q: Who is choosing the movies for the NBFF?
GS: There are two processes for a film to be at the festival. One is through our submission process, and that is very extensive. The process starts in August and ends in early February. Those are films that are sent in by filmmakers from all around the world. Our staff reviews and rates them and then the programming team debates before making the decision if the films are going to be at the festival or not. Then there is the recruitment process. That is where we see films at another festival. We take a look at those films and, from a curatorial process, put them in.
Q: Are you personally involved in the decision process?
GS: I used to watch quite a few more films then I do now. But I definitely watch the Spotlight films. I really leave it up to the programming team to find the best films that are available for our audience.
Q: How many international festivals do you go to?
GS: Not all of them, but to a lot of them. We do Toronto, Berlin, Sundance, Dublin, Norway, Ireland, Cannes…
Q: Have you been to Berlin this year?
GS: I couldn’t go, but Cade Russell, the Associate Director of Programming at NBFF, has been to Berlin many times.
Q: Any connection to Germany?
GS: I have traveled to Germany quite a bit. I wanted to go to the Munich Film Festival, which is a little smaller. We are debating about it for this year; there are just so many things going on at once.
Q: How does the NBFF audience receive foreign films with subtitles?
GS: I think the unique aspect of the audience for Orange County is that they are focused on quality. It doesn’t matter if it is an English language film or a German film. If it’s a good film, they are going to want to sit back and watch that film and are open to reading the subtitles as long as it is a quality film.
Q: Do you only have one international film per country?
GS: No, for Germany I think we got two films. We have One Breath, which is the Spotlight, and then we have A Heavy Heart.
Q: Do you remember your first German Spotlight?
GS: The first German Spotlight movie was called As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, many years ago. I remember that because it was the story of a German soldier who was a prisoner of war in a Soviet Gulag and he escapes and has to walk across Siberia to get home. So the theatre at that time was packed. It was a full house, three/four hundred people. It was a very anticipated film, and the air conditioning went out! So you have these scenes of the Siberian winter, and everyone was taking off their jackets…! They were sweating, it was very hot, but everyone stayed. No one left! It was a really great film and a wonderful experience. It was a very positive, a very quintessential film festival experience.
Q: There were a few years without a German Spotlight. Why?
GS: The only reason we didn’t continue with the German Spotlight is that there was a period of time where Germany wasn’t putting out both the quality and, most importantly, the number of films. From the film festival’s standpoint, it is not just, “well, this is a really great film from Germany.” We need to have four, five films to take a look at. Nor is it only us, the filmmakers are also making decisions. That can be something like “We love the Newport Beach Film Festival, but we are holding out for the Sundance Film Festival.” Or there is a big blockbuster in Germany, and it is picked up by the Weinstein Company, and they are going to be releasing it in February. So it comes out before our festival. As you see, there is also a timing component to it.
Yes, there were a couple of years where there were a number of forces that worked against us having a stronger German Spotlight. Then we talked about it last year and said it was time to bring it back. We had a very successful German Spotlight screening last year, and we hopefully have a very successful one this year.
Q: How about celebrities for German movies?
GS: We’d love to get more! Something that has been successful with our other International Spotlights is getting the respective entertainment and film community, that is here in Southern California, engaged. Even if an actor or actress isn’t in the film, having them come down and support German film in Southern California becomes an important point. We have done that with our Australian Spotlight, our UK Spotlight, our Irish Spotlight, and Latino and Asian showcases. We would love to get the German expatriate film making community here in Southern California come to the German Spotlight to support German film!
Q: What is the one movie at this year’s NBFF that we absolutely shouldn’t miss?
GS: With 350 plus films, there is something for everybody. One of the areas I really enjoy is not a film, it is our Seminar Series. When you go to other festivals, the seminars would cost you anywhere between maybe $15-$25 per session, where at Newport it is free. These are free seminars! And they cover areas such as acting, directing, cinematography, music, composing music for film. We also have a Women in Film panel this year.
That is probably the one thing I am very proud of since our first year, we always had free seminars! Today some of the leading-edge people in the industry come out to the NBFF and talk about what they do in front of or behind the camera. So that is my favorite part.
Q: Where are the seminars taking place?
GS: They are at the Newport Beach Civic Center this year. That’s right across from Fashion Island.
Q: Finally, what is new at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival?
GS: This year we will host a Filmmaker’s EXPO for the fist time! We will have it for one day only, on April 24th. The expo will offer filmmakers to engage with professional industry representatives and vendors displaying and demonstrating top of the line filmmaking equipment, resources and more. The EXPO will be at the Newport Beach Civic Center.
Thank you for your time! We look forward to an exciting NBFF 2016!
CaliforniaGermans readers enjoy a $5 ticket discount with the promo code : GERMAN2016
The German NBFF Spotlight Movie One Breath plays April 26th, at the Triangle Theatre, Costa Mesa at 8:15pm. It is followed by the European Spotlight Gala at SOCO
The German movie A Heavy Heart plays April 25th at the Triangle Theatre, Costa Mesa at 8:00pm.
The 17th NBFF will show over 350 independent and international films, have nightly gala events and offer free educational seminars with directors and actors. The NBFF is not only an industry event but the community is much invited. Families will appreciate the extensive Family Film Series.
Interview: Cornelia Fuertes
Assistance: Anne-Kathrin Schulte