Marc and Brenda Lhormer, the visionary co-founders of the Napa Valley Film Festival, rang in the inaugural year of the festival in November 2011. As owners of Zin Haze Productions and co-directors of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival from 2001-08, the Lhormers are no strangers to the world of film. This expertise led them to the founding of the Napa Valley Film Festival, a large-scale event that includes the four major cities of Napa Valley–Napa, St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville.
“We want every screening, party, and event to feel intimate, warm, and reflective of what Napa Valley is all about.”
The Napa Valley Film Festival is an entirely different type of film festival, encompassing film screenings, wine tastings, dinners with celebrity chefs, filmmakers and winemakers, VIP hospitality lounges and award ceremonies. Intimate screening venues such as the airplane hangar in Calistoga and a barrel room in Yountville are all part of its charm. Most importantly, the festival offers a customizable experience where everyone is treated like a VIP. Haute Living sat down with this power couple to hear more about this innovative, yet refined event.
What makes the Napa Valley Film Festival so unique?
Marc Lhormer: This film festival marries independent filmmaking with the true spirit of Napa Valley. It’s not all about big corporate names; 95 percent of the wineries are small and family-owned, very much like great independent films versus larger Hollywood movies. The same thing is true of the cuisine. There are many artisan chefs on board. This also boils over into our hospitality partners–again, no big chains. This weaving together is completely unique.
Brenda Lhormer: We want every screening, party, and event to feel intimate, warm, and reflective of what Napa Valley is all about. That’s what makes it special. Nothing is ever overcrowded or too commercial. People will walk out and say, “Wow, we saw a film, we had a glass of wine, and we talked to the filmmakers.”
What was the idea behind uniting the four major cities of the valley?
ML: Napa has had a major renaissance the last few years with new hotels and a lot of investment. The challenge was proposed to us to implement a festival of global consciousness, as there has never been an event that unites the Valley where people are simultaneously participating in every city. We loved that challenge, so we put the Napa Valley Film Festival footprint in the ground. It was a lot of work, but the rewards are fantastic.
Tell us about the evolution of the Napa Valley Film Festival from the time of its inception.
ML: We started in June 2009 in the depth of the recession. We didn’t rely on corporate sponsors. Instead, we focused on building the relationships in the Valley. We started by getting the town and supervisors to all buy in. We secured venues, wineries, hosts and participants. We worked on that foundation for 18 months, then we created the Founding Patron program. We offered people the opportunity to be a Founding Patron at four different monetary levels. That was a major focus to start to bring in paid staff. At the end, we showed 101 films, while 125 wineries, 30 restaurants and more than 50 hospitality partners participated.
Give an example of a custom experience of a Founding Patron.
BL: There are four levels of VIP Patron experiences. Leslie and Keith Blodgett and Eileen and Michael Chiarello (Bottega’s famed chef) were Founding Patrons at the highest level. They received our concierge service extraordinaire. We arranged tickets for all screenings, dinners and V.I.P. receptions. They received a customized itinerary, a Mercedes, a private driver and a private concierge. That is a $50,000 experience, but there’s everything in between. The hospitality that we offer everyone is equal in its own way. Even a $10 ticket holder feels welcomed.
What do you want festival-goers to walk away with?
BL: We want guests to think, “I need to come back every year, because I’m going to get something different each time. I’m going to meet a new artist, a new chef, a new filmmaker and new friends.” We want people to walk away with the feeling that they’re part of this community now, whether they live here or not.
ML: We want you to be changed by this experience, [for] your experience to be so transformative that it will change someone else. We want it to become addictive, so you want to come again. We want this on your calendar as an annual tradition.