2013 Newport Beach Film Festival: What it’s like to be a juror


The 14th annual Newport Beach Film Festival started April 25 and ends this Thursday, May 2. After the extravagant weeklong festival ends, they will have screened over 350 films, screening at five different venues and at times occupying 12 screens at once. I knew very little about this festival, other than a few key programmers—Max Naylor, Amanda Salazar, Adam Gentry, Jay Winterstein, and executive director Gregg Schwenk—whom I had met in previous years attending Sundance standing in lines, sitting near one another at screenings, and meeting up at parties. (On opening night, I was blown away by the fact there were some announced 500 volunteers that would work over 50,000+ hours, year-round and during the festival to make this event happen!) This past January at Sundance, I was asked to participate at the festival as a jury member and there was no way I was going to say no.

While I knew what it meant to be on a festival jury, I had no idea what to prepare for in the weeks leading up to the festival, until a gigantic stack of DVDs showed up one day in the mail. Looking over the titles I was excited to see some that I had heard of and others that were completely new to me. When I got all the DVDs, I counted up how many minutes, or better yet, how many hours it was going to take me to watch everything over the course of sixteen days, in order to turn in my results a day before the festival started. It was 1,269 minutes, equaling a little over 21 and a half hours, of paying attention to my TV screen and judging the five narrative features, five documentary features, and 24 shorts split up into three categories: short narratives, short documentaries, and short animated films. While the shorts and documentary programs were based on a one through ten number scales, (one being poor, ten deemed excellent) the narrative features were a little trickier. There were an additional six categories that needed to be judged for the narrative features, Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Cinematography, and Screenplay.

Going through each film required patience that I was unaware of, since everything needed to be watched start to finish. As I started one, finished it up, and put another into the DVD player, they started to blend together, as if I were already at the festival, bouncing from one theater to the next, going from venue to venue and taking notes as I went along. The narratives also ran the gamut of the genre table, ranging from mystery/suspense (A Single Shot starring Sam Rockwell), drama (The Time Being starring Frank Langella), a French romantic comedy (Fly Me to the Moon starring French superstar Dany Boon and Diane Kruger), a comedy (In Security starring Michael Gladis, best known for playing Paul Kinsey on AMCs Mad Men), and last a coming-of-age allegory drama, I Declare War, that featured up-and-coming young adults. There were some that I appreciated more than others, and felt everything from delight to horror sitting through these films.

The documentaries were closer to my liking and harder to judge as most of them were very solid treatments. They included a music doc, Broadway Idiot, featuring the Berkeley-based punk band Green Day and their album American Idiot being turned into a Broadway musicalBroadway Idiot also served as the opening feature at the festival, with director Doug Hamilton and the band members present for the screening. Terms and Conditions May Apply is about how we view Privacy Policies; Casting By is about the life of pioneer Hollywood casting director Marion Dougherty; Critical Mass lays down the law on global population and how Earth could reach 9 billion people by 2050; lastly, From Nothing, Something is about the creative process used by many different people in their fields, including Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara, acclaimed novelist Tom Perrotta (Election, Little Children), comedian (and Duluth native) Maria Bamford, and Top Chef‘s Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. Amazingly enough, not one of these films has yet played in the Twin Cities, and some may never come to town.

When it came time to finally vote on everything, four other jurors and I met and discussed each film at length as our meeting ran over two hours to pick our winners. (I cannot reveal the winners as they have not been released to the public and the festival yet.) The discussion was lively, and everyone gave valid points. There were a few disagreements among us, and I actually flipped one of my choices, thanks in large part to some serious thought about a major flaw one of the narrative films had in it that I had overlooked on first viewing. We did not have any sort of 12 Angry Men moments in our discussions, but clearly at times, some of the jurors were somewhat surprised what others were championing, myself included. At other times, it was nice to see when we all universally praised a film or a category, and made our selection in a matter of seconds. We did manage to get through the process, leaving without any battle scars, and all went our separate ways after our meeting. I am looking forward to hearing from the festival, about the response to our chosen winners.

A large bulk of my time was spent watching films before I went out to Newport Beach, but a fair amount of time at the festival itself was also spent catching a few other screenings, meeting up with old friends, taking in a L.A. Dodgers game, and running into a woman at a party I had graduated high school with and had not seen in nearly 15 years; she now lives in Newport Beach. There were other surprises along the way, the biggest being when a few friends of mine traveled down from Los Angeles to catch the world premiere screening of the surprisingly hilarious action comedy, Welcome to the Jungle starring Adam Brody (best known as Seth Cohen from The O.C.) and in a supporting role, the one and only Jean Claude Van Damme, both of whom were present at the screening along with another 20 different cast and crew members.

I’ll not soon forget my time spent at Newport Beach. While I was there, I guess you could say on a “working vacation,” I was also there to support an outstanding and thriving film festival, hang out with old friends who curate and program some top-notch films, and enjoy the nightlife—including a party at a fitness club, which I would never have thought was possible. However, from the moment I landed to the time I got back on the plane to return home, it was a wonderful film experience. I’m excited to hopefully return, jury member or not, to Newport Beach next year.