There are prestigious film festivals (Telluride), populist festivals (Toronto) and a few pretentious festivals (looking at you, Cannes). Then there's the Sun Valley Film Festival which, as it prepares for its seventh season, is in the enviable position of being a boutique showcase.
"I think it's fair to say that Sun Valley has an image issue that sometimes works in its favor and sometimes works against it," said SVFF Director of Programming Laura Mehlhoff. "This is one of the most special places on the planet. Yes, 'boutique' sounds just about right. We have an amazing slate of films this year, including a number of big premieres, but we also have a full slate of films that we'll screen for free. So, accessibility is a big part of who we are."
Mehlhoff has worked for the festival since its first incarnation, and has been its director of programming for the last six years. High on her list of priorities is to bring a "red carpet" feel to SVFF, while at the same time setting it apart from an ever-growing number of festivals—it's estimated there are at least 3,000 film fests across the globe.
"One of the things that we work really hard at is having a good number of filmmakers at our festival. That's something that Laura and [SVFF Director]Candice Pate] insist on—that filmmakers be here to share their work with our audiences," said SVFF Executive Director Teddy Grennan. "But sometimes piloting this festival is a bit like landing an airplane right after you clear a huge mountain."
Perhaps the biggest mountain to clear involves curating a tight schedule from hundreds of submitted films. Additionally, Mehlhoff spends a lot of energy chasing down buzz-worthy titles from the just-wrapped Sundance Film Festival. This year, she secured one of the buzziest: Madeline's Madeline, called the "best" of Sundance by The Village Voice and described as a "bubbling kettle of raw, unleashed emotions" by The Hollywood Reporter.
"More and more filmmakers and distributors have heard of Sun Valley and now want to screen with us," said Mehlhoff. "We're definitely on the radar of more studios, like Bleecker Street."
Launched in 2015, Bleecker Street has already been attached to several Oscar-contenders, such as Beasts of No Nation, Captain Fantastic and Trumbo.
"Bleecker has given us two exciting new films this year: Leave No Trace and Beirut," said Mehlhoff. "Both just premiered at Sundance."
Leave No Trace is directed by Debra Granik—her first narrative feature since Winter Bone premiered in 2010—and Beirut, directed by Brad Anderson (Boardwalk Empire, The Killing and The Brave), stars Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike.
Plus, a number of films on the SVFF roster this year have Idaho roots, including a contemporary adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the feature film directorial debut from Casey Wilder Mott, and a new episode of the Netflix series Last Chance U, directed by Greg Whiteley. Both Mott and Whiteley are Idaho natives.
"A sneak peek from Netflix is huge. And bringing in more episodic television is something we've talked about for a while now," said Mehlhoff. "Greg Whiteley is coming in here with one of his producers. So, it will be an interesting conversation about the game-changer that is Netflix."
In all, there will be 21 features, dozens of short films, filmmaker salons, screenwriting and filmmaking labs, and the popular "coffee talks" with high-profile celebrities. Actress/producer Kate Bosworth will be honored with the Pioneer Award and actress/entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow will receive the SVFF Vision Award. Previous festival honorees include Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Oliver Stone, Geena Davis and Clint Eastwood.
"The star shine is undeniable," said Grennan, "but the fact that our festival remains a boutique is pretty amazing."
So many amazing films, so little time! We’ll be premiering 25 features and dozens of short films at this year’s festival and our full event & film schedule is NOW live! Which films are you most excited to see? #SVFF2018 pic.twitter.com/gT3p9copbv— Sun Valley Film Fest (@SunValleyFilm) March 2, 2018