Steve Shor (left) and Kevin McNeely (right)
As a devoted attendee over the last decade to Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF), and after two years of it going strictly digital due to the global Covid pandemic, the festival held an in person edition this year for its 25th anniversary. It was a smashing success! After attending its 25th Annual edition, I sat with program director Steve Shor and artistic Director Kevin McNeely. In our interview together, here is what they had to say:
Can you give us an overview of this year being the 25th Anniversary?
KEVIN: This is our 25th annual festival. Steve has put together 120 films, 35 countries and 7 short programs. 69 Premiers.
STEVE: We had a solid jury this year. We had an agent from CAA, a French filmmaker, Jen Siebel Newsom, a casting director, Samuel Goldwyn acquisitions and a partner from XYZ Films. It was a very vibrant jury this year. They all were blown away by what they saw and what we’re doing.
KEVIN: And it’s important to the filmmakers because if they get a Jury Award or an Audience Award it helps them if they’re talking to a distributor to be award winners. And Steve puts that together every year.
STEVE: As an example, our English language winner is the movie “Pretty Problems” (2022). We were the first film festival they came to for the film. It did go to SXSW as their world premiere but won an audience award here. We had already designated it as the winner of the Sonoma International Bay Area Filmmaker Award. They not only got that award, they won the Jury prize here.
This being the 25th year, can you explain a little about the history of the festival?
KEVIN: A woman named Caroline Stalman, who unfortunately is no longer with us, and a hatful of all of us really started this festival as an excuse to have a big party on Saturday night. And we still have that big fun part on the Saturday night of the film festival. It was all volunteers for the first five years. It has grown tremendously. For the last 12 years, the film festival has been doing so well. And we “guesstimate” that pre-Covid, we had guest attendance of maybe 7-8,000 people from Wednesday to Sunday. This time we had very respectable attendance and we’ve had wonderful sponsorship. And despite there still being people cautious about attending a live event, the masks are off and the theaters are full. Our culinary events were over the top too. We honored the famous and legendary chef Jacques Pepin. He was part of something called “Chefs and Shorts”. There were six celebrity chefs that paired with six short films. We screen the film then something in the film inspires the chef to create their unique dish. The film is shown and the course is brought out, then they come out and talk about it. People like Pepin, Passal, Yan… We also had Joanne Weir from Food Network and the PBS “Plates and Places” host an event. This being the 25th year we really tried to step it up.
STEVE: Here, celebrities can walk around and feel comfortable. Actress Jacqueline Bisset not only came to the parties but attended the dinners. And Karen Allen walked around the square all week watching the movies, taking in the festival and the community.
You had a great virtual presence during Covid. How is the energy this year Post Covid?
KEVIN: Here is the silver lining of the virtual festival: you can watch any film digitally between Wednesday and Sunday at any time. But with a live festival you have to show up at a certain day at a certain time. So because we have filmmakers from around the world, they use their social platforms to tell everyone to watch their films. During the virtual festival, we had 24,000 people watching, all the way from Guam to South Korea, from Brazil to Argentina to Central Europe. That was very cool, but there is nothing like a live event. The idea that we are sitting in the Cosire tent interacting with people like you, hanging out with filmmakers, trying food from all the different restaurants in Sonoma. And to have live music playing all day long… it’s just incomparable. What we say is that we celebrate the very best in film, food, wine and fun. It all comes together here.
What is the Cosire tent?
KEVIN: They are out of Montreal. They used to be in commercial real estate before they went into the business of senior living. There are two Cosire senior living facilities. One of them has a chef and his last gig was working for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. It’s like a senior commune where they eat extremely well. Their chef Wong made appetizers for us in the evenings.
Yours is one of the only festivals that holds a wine competition. Can you tell us about that?
KEVIN: We have 60 wineries that are generous enough to donate their wines, so it gives them a little recognition. We have a somm, Chris Sawyer, who sits with other judges and they give out wine awards to all the participating wineries. After that, Steve gives out the jury awards to the filmmakers. Every year more wineries show up for it.
How did you two get involved with SIFF?
KEVIN: Before being a film festival programmer, Steve Shor was a producer. He submitted a film to the festival years ago. Now he programs for this and other festivals. We’ve been trying to get him to exclusively program for us.
STEVE: It might have been the fifth year of the festival that I got involved. I used to come up here as a getaway from Colombia Pictures. I had a good friend who lives here so I got to know it pretty well. I submitted a film here and I was honored to be asked if I could bring my talent here. The film starred Fionnula Flanagan. It was so nice to have the film and the star of it here. That was my entry into SIFF. Because I was still in the studio business and a programmer at AFI festival, every year SIFF would ask me, “can you do a panel for us? Can you be on the jury? Can you be on the panel and jury? Can you be the festival advisor?” So when the last advisor was leaving, I came in. Ever since, Kevin and I have had a very successful working relationship after all of these years.
KEVIN: The films Steve programs here are truly fantastic. We don’t have films that are so esoteric where people are coming out of it scratching their eyes asking what they just saw. We have films that audiences can really connect to. The worst thing people say to Steve about the films is, “you made me cry again” or “I wish I had seen all the movies”.
STEVE: On the festival side, I attend film festivals and go from one theater to the next or one sales company to the next spreading the gospel of SIFF around the world.
KEVIN: We’re going to do a virtual session again at the end of April. Steve will pick 20+ films and they won’t be from the major distributors or studios. They’re all indie filmmakers. You can watch them from Saturday morning until Sunday at midnight.
How important are film festivals and attending them?
KEVIN: There used to be hundreds of film festivals in the US and some may have dropped off because of Covid. But I still think it’s a platform for the audience to watch the films and to get a reaction. To get an audience or jury award is like a vetting process for Netflix, Amazon, etc., because they’ll see how people react to the films. It reaffirms the fact that if audiences are willing to pay money to see them, this is a film the audience already likes. At SIFF, we don’t hang our hat on one thing. We try to put together a robust program of world cinema, docs, narratives, shorts. People love that. We are also important to the community as a destination film festival.
STEVE: The whole idea is having all these filmmakers here. While there is also a Hollywood element, one thing I demand from my guest jurors is that they interact. I tell them to come to the parties and it’s up to the indie filmmakers to hunt down these jurors and do business with them. But it forms relationships with Hollywood professionals to give the filmmakers the next step. For example, Netflix will get some of the films here and Samuel Goldywin is talking about some of the films here.
KEVIN: In the last five years there have been films that started here that went on to get wide distribution, and that gives us credibility as a film festival. There is still an interest in going to Cannes and in the academy awards. Is the interest waning? Sure, Oscar viewing is lower than ever. But we had a full turnout for our opening night film “The Lost City” with the two Nee Brothers, Adam and Aaron. What a production! They had a crew of 650. Their actors were 100. They had Sandy Bullock, Channing Tatum. Brad Pitt. The film was a roller coaster ride.
STEVE: I say our closing night film “The Butcher’s Daughter” is way more interesting than the Oscars. The whole cast of “Pretty Problems” was here and the actress Britt was so happy to meet her favorite actress Karen Allen. She just melted. Her husband was a giddy school girl. They hung out and took photos. It was a Sonoma moment where these people got to meet their heroes.
You were talking about the community. How important is this to the community?
KEVIN: We are a unique cultural asset. And we tongue and cheek call these five days “Sonomawood”. People in the community are very supportive whether it be sponsors, people buying passes, volunteers or our host families who feel comfortable about letting filmmakers in their homes that they dont know. There are no velvet ropes or headsets here. We are very easy going. People like Jacquie Bissett and Karen Allen can walk around and people come up to her. And they have fun! Ray Liotta had a great time when he was here and Jen Newsom came to our closing party.
Can you share with us a best moment and worst moment?
STEVE: The worst moment was a closing night film years ago. It was when DCPs were coming. The DCP was there and got tested but the key wasn’t working. They had it messed up from AM and PM. But we had enough films loaded that we were okay. It was so embarrassing though. I was running around calling France at 2:00am trying to find help. Now we have an emergency contact number for a response on the weekend, to avoid issues like that in the future. In fact, we had to use it this year for an English film. In the end, we were able to get the film off on time and we kept on going.
KEVIN: And shout out to our tech god Tim Taylor. He’s unbelievable. We have eight screening venues and we make sure they are all running. But for me, the best and worst moment happened all within the same twenty minutes. The old 35mm projector in the Sebastiani Theater, and yet again the film came to a screeching halt. The film began to melt and everyone just sighed. Before they turned on the house lights this one character, Robin Williams, stepped up in front of the audience and pointed to the projectionist and said, “even the projectionist is on wine!” He stood up and ad lib performed in front of everyone for twenty minutes until they fixed the film. The place went wild. No one will remember much about the film but they will never forget that unique moment with Robin Williams. We miss him because he would come here on a regular basis. He would light up a whole room. We’ve had wonderful people over the years. We don’t hang our hat on the celebrity thing but we’ve certainly had our fair share.
STEVE: For me, another best moment was one year when we had a documentary from Italy. It was a wine film. The director had her boyfriend with her and she made little food items to give to everyone who came to her film. They ended up getting married at a winery here while the festival was going on.
KEVIN: He proposed! There was a problem with the film so while there was nothing going on, he stood up and proposed to her in front of everyone else.
Where do you see the future of SIFF going?
KEVIN: Someone made a suggestion that next year we should call it “SIFF 25” again, like “Groundhog Day”. We try to reinvent ourselves every year. And as long as Steve keeps getting these great films, doing these culinary events and as long as people continue to come, our community and volunteers continue to support us, we ‘ll be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat.
Are you in competition with other festivals?
STEVE: Devour Fest is a working partner of ours. I’ve known Leah, the co-director of Devour, for 25 years. When I first was pondering introducing culinary films here I just happened to call Leah and she had just left the Atlantic Film Festival. At first, I was worried about the competition, but then I realized we are only doing a section. Kevin had a dinner here prior, but I thought of having a stand alone dinner during the festival like “Chefs and Shorts”, and it has been a great partnership ever since. We also have great alliances with other film festivals. We get films from Vero Beach Film Fest and I have a friend from FairHope Alabama Film Festival. The festival director Mary Riser said to me this year, “Steve, I’ve been to a lot of festivals and I’ve never been to a better programmed film festival than yours.” On the other hand, I’ve had filmmakers cancel on us saying “Cinequest called and they would like me to be their opening film.” And I’ve said “Im not going to stand in your way. Have at it.” We work with the filmmakers.
KEVIN: We try to be supportive to indie filmmakers. We are not in competition with other festivals. If we have common films with other festivals, we will work it out. We will screen our films on Thursday and Saturday and they can do them on Friday and Sunday. I feel that one of the best festivals in the country is the Mill Valley Film Fest. Mark Fishman is a class act and his crew. What they put together is top drawer, and he’s always been helpful to us. And Karen Allens’ dear friend is Kelley Vickory who runs the Berkshire Film Festival. So we now have another new relationship. So no, I dont think we try to be in competition. We recommend other festivals to our filmmakers. That’s why I think we’ve been around for 25 years.
STEVE: Having other film festival programmers and directors attend ours to pick up movies for their festival, it reinforces my film choices. And the audience certainly does as well. I’m here to book films for the audience, but I’m happy that the other film festivals are picking out good movies for their festivals too. We are a market now.
KEVIN: If you havent been to our film festival, we look forward to welcoming you to SIFF 26!
Vanessa McMahon and Steve Shor
Interview by Vanessa McMahon