Around Napa, Brenda and Marc Lhormer, cofounders of the Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF), are known as dreamers who make things happen. This fall, their film festival, now just six years old, is already giving Sundance a run for its money. The gorgeous sites and the festival’s reputation for exceptional hospitality have been drawing more and more of Hollywood’s best and brightest. A-listers will be all over the venues, where, for instance, Katie Holmes will make her film directing debut and Matthew McConaughey, Kurt Russell, Lee Daniels, and Viggo Mortensen are slated to receive awards. During the five-day event, which takes place November 9–13, more than 300 filmmakers, 100 wineries, and 30 restaurants will gather in Napa Valley for the spectacle of more than 120 independent films and studio sneak previews. Movies will be shown at 13 venues throughout Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga.
These screening locations, says Brenda Lhormer, are what make the festival unique. “We create theaters out of barrel rooms and historic movie palaces. Our venues are our characters. Only one of 13 theaters is an actual movie theater; everything else we create,” she says. “We have a venue in Calistoga that’s an airplane hanger in a field, so you’re drinking a beer in an airplane hanger, watching a movie, and then hearing from the director and the actors afterwards about how the movie was made. After that film, you can go over to one of our wine pavilions where you can taste 10 to 15 wines from boutique wineries all around the valley….This is what makes the NVFF so different from other festivals.” The setting is magical. Napa in November, with its Technicolor display of changing vineyard leaves, is a glorious thing to behold. The valley has mastered the art of good vibes, and this is apparent in every aspect of the five-day event. “The word is really spreading throughout the film industry that we offer exceptional hospitality,” Lhormer says. “We have a great reputation for doing so; we love treating the filmmakers and the celebrities like kings and queens. And our audiences really appreciate their work.”
The Lhormers started the film festival in 2009. A year earlier, they had produced the film Bottle Shock, which tells the story of the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris blind wine tasting that put the California wine region on the map. At the time, Lhormer thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if Napa had a film festival where the movie could have its world premiere? The couple started talking to their friends in the wine, film, and events industries, and after two years of development, the festival was born. One of the first key supporters was Jean-Charles Boisset, the French winemaker and owner of Raymond Vineyards and the Boisset Collection, a family-owned producer and importer with a portfolio of award-winning French and California wines. “Marc and Brenda Lhormer are visionaries. They have the talent to select the best producers and actors to bring the right synergy of talent and creative spirit. We believed in them and their ideas for the festival immediately and also believed that the wine country needed the festival as an additional dimension to its incredible culture, events, and sensory experiences. [We] have the arts of painting, sculpting, and music here, but film was missing,” Boisset told Haute Living. “They brought Hollywood…to wine country and we’ve embraced it.”
The Lhormers designed the festival as a nonprofit that also provides educational programs for Napa’s youth. For the third year in a row, the festival is hosting a field trip for 1,200 students in November. Middle school and high school students will spend the day watching documentaries. “I am so moved by how these kids are affected by their experience watching the movies and thinking outside of their own lives,” Lhormer says. “[We talk] to the kids afterwards about what they learned, what they felt, what they’re going to do with their lives after having this experience….These kids are truly transformed by the experiences they have with our education programs.”
The festival also sponsors an Artist-in-Residence program. The directors of the 20 films vying for Best Narrative Feature and Best Documentary Feature are invited to take a series of master classes with industry leaders. They are put up at Meadowood Napa Valley and treated to a litany of dinners, receptions, and networking events that are invaluable to up-and-coming filmmakers. “They go through mentoring sessions and one-on-ones that we set up for them, along with general sessions. They play croquet together, they get to know each other,” Lhormer explains. “They make friendships that last forever. It’s really rewarding to talk to those filmmakers who say, ‘Because of this program and because I was here and I met so and so, I got to learn about film financing and promotion and I got tips and tricks from industry mentors.’ [The process] inspires that talent and celebrates those young filmmakers who wouldn’t necessarily get their work seen if it weren’t for film festivals. That’s the thing that I love the most about this event.” Ann Marie Conover, director of marketing and communications at Meadowood, was instrumental in bringing the Artist-in-Residence program to the Napa resort. “The program creates a foundation for filmmakers to gather, exchange ideas, seek and provide mentorship, and build relationships that will last a lifetime. It differentiates the NVFF from other festivals and creates a compelling draw for leading filmmakers to enter their works,” Conover says. “We feel so rewarded by the filmmaking community we are fostering.”
This year’s festival promises to be the biggest and best event yet. In the past, only a few celebrities were scheduled to attend, but come November, Napa will be crawling with Hollywood A-listers and the hottest newcomers. The festival cover star, famed director Lee Daniels, is the Charles Krug Legendary Filmmaker award winner; Kurt Russell will be honored with the Actor Tribute award; and Viggo Mortensen has been chosen to receive the Spotlight Tribute award. Daniels, Russell, and Mortensen will be at the Lincoln Theater, part of the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center, for an event hosted by Access Hollywood’s Natalie Morales and Kit Hoover.
Several new or expanded winery-festival partnerships are debuting this fall. Charles Krug, the valley’s oldest winery, is one of the leading sponsors of the event and this year sponsors the festival’s legendary tribute awards to Daniels and Russell. “This is our first year partnering at this level with the Napa Valley Film festival,” Peter Mondavi Jr. says. “We are excited to see how our historic carriage house, built in 1881, will be transformed into a movie screening venue. It will be memorable for all the guests, and we find it interesting to note that the carriage house was built only a decade before motion pictures were introduced.”
The opening night screening is Lion, a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel that tells the story of a five-year-old Indian boy who gets lost on the streets of Calcutta. Although he is rescued, then raised by adoptive parents in Australia, he’s haunted by memories of his birth family. Lion recounts his journey to find his lost family. Lhormer is excited about this film, calling Patel “unbelievable. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for this, I will go crazy. I love Lion.” The competition films—there are 10 in each category—play four times at different venues, ensuring that festivalgoers can catch as many of the films as possible. “I’m actually kind of amazed that our narrative competition films have a lot of famous people in them, and it’s really nice to see these A-list actors taking a risk and saying, ‘I’m going to do something smaller,’ and they do these passion projects,” Lhormer says. “I think The Book of Love, with Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Biel, is a good example of that. She has a small role in this beautiful, touching film.” Other films that Lhormer recommends include Little Boxes, Love Is All You Need, Swim Team, All We Had, and Until Twenty.
Patel will attend the festival, along with many other renowned actors, from Aaron Eckhart to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Patel and Chloë Grace Moretz are the recipients of the Raymond Vineyards Trailblazer Tribute, while young actors Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell will receive the Chandon Rising Star Tribute award. “What an incredible honor to now be a part of the legacy of the Chandon Rising Star Tribute at Napa,” Powell says. “I feel insanely lucky to share print real estate alongside cinematic studs and studesses like Kurt Russell, Zoey Deutch, Lee Daniels, Chloë Grace Moretz, Dev Patel, and Viggo Mortensen. I can’t wait to stain my teeth red and geek out on movies with all of them and all of Napa.” The best place to spot a celebrity? On the red carpet before the tribute event on the Thursday night of the festival. Local celebrity Gordon Getty will also be at the festival. A documentary about his life, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music, will be shown on Sunday. “Anybody who loves classical music or documentaries or who happens to be curious about Gordon Getty should go to that screening,” Lhormer says.
Eat and Drink
Food and film come together in a big way at this year’s festival. At Variety’s 10 to Taste, a cooking competition in which 10 local student chefs will cook dishes inspired by iconic movie food scenes, star chef Tyler Florence and Carole Horst of Variety will taste the students’ creations and choose a winner. In addition, at a culinary stage set up along the Napa riverfront, food and wine experts will share tips on how to taste wine, make ceviche, and whip up a delicious vegan brunch. Four wine pavilions will be open every day from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Each tasting will focus on a different style of wine from Napa’s hidden gems to the Mount Veeder appellation.
Then there are the parties: Chef Michael Chiarello hosts the opening night patron circle party at his new restaurant, Ottimo; showroom owner Erin Martin is throwing a decadent party on Friday night with wines from Cliff Family, Behrens, and Twenty Rows; and Meadowood is catering a movie mogul dinner prepared by celebrity chef Christopher Kostow. On Friday night, take in a Vintner Circle Dinner and choose from 25 wineries—including such notables as Italics Winegrowers, Duckhorn Portfolio, and Liana Estates—that are teaming up with chefs to host an intimate winemaker dinner on their property.
Where to Stay
At the Solage Calistoga, rooms are sumptuous individual cabins with outdoor sitting areas, warm neutral decor, and showers with pebble floors. In front of each cottage are two bikes that guests may use throughout their stay at the resort. Imagine biking to nearby screenings! Solage has a stunning all-white spa with mineral-rich mud treatments and geothermal natural pools.
The Bardessono is in the heart of downtown Yountville, a five-minute walk from the famed French Laundry. With soothing water elements throughout the property, a culinary garden, and a fitness center with entire walls that open up to the outside, Bardessono is a Zen oasis. More retreat and sanctuary than stereotypical resort, the lobby and public areas are filled with beautiful artwork. The 62 rooms are all suites with Egyptian linens and private outdoor areas.
Indian Springs—California’s oldest continuously operated pool and spa facility—is another excellent option that’ s also the location of Friday night’s festival pool party. With an Olympic-size mineral pool heated to 98°F from Calistoga’s famous natural geysers, the resort and spa have been a wellness destination for over 100 years. There is a nostalgic quality to Indian Springs that gives it the feel of a sophisticated adult summer camp. The hotel recently underwent a renovation that added 75 bungalows and lodge rooms with indoor and outdoor event spaces, and updated both the main pool and the smaller adult pool, heated by a natural spring. With impeccable, fragrant gardens of lavender and roses, the palm tree-filled property is a treat for the eye and the senses.