It was as if a film director stood atop Mount Baldy, which overlooks Sun Valley, and shouted, "Action!" On cue, crystalline snow floated down to the Wood River Valley precisely as the seventh annual Sun Valley Film Festival got underway on March 7. Hollywood couldn't have produced better special effects with more expert timing. For the next five days, attendees rubbed elbows with some of the most prolific and popular filmmakers in show business.
"I can't get over how much the people here love movies," said Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, co-star of The Greatest Showman, one of the biggest films of 2017, and Aquaman, one of the most anticipated blockbusters of 2018. "It's a thrill to be here, not only as someone who contributes to the film industry, but as a fan."
There was no mistaking the star's shine during the first evening of the festival, which Abdul-Mateen largely spent posing for a seemingly endless number of selfies with fans—and therein lies one of worst-kept SVFF secrets: unprecedented access to great films, stars and filmmakers. From Coffee Talks each morning (full disclosure: I have been fortunate enough to moderate some of these intimate chats) to the high-energy late-night parties, attendees get serious face-time with award-winning producers, writers, directors, composers and stars, which this year included Kate Bosworth, Jay Duplass, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow.
"I adore it here. When I was young, I used to come to Sun Valley to ski with my family," said Paltrow, who received the SVFF Vision Award at a posh dinner/reception inside the historic Roundhouse atop Mount Baldy. Previous recipients include Oscar-winners Geena Davis, Clint Eastwood and Jodie Foster. The following morning, Paltrow was greeted by a capacity crowd inside another historical landmark, the 81-year-old Sun Valley Opera House, which was the Coffee Talks venue this year. Paltrow, who will reunite with the Marvel Universe in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, told the audience she detects a tangible sea-change in the film industry, particularly when it comes to inclusion.
"It's an exciting time. When we've have had so few women, so few women of color and so few men of color behind the camera, we have a lot of license now to expand," said Paltrow.
A significant factor in that change comes in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal which continues to rock the filmmaking community. In October 2017, just as the Weinstein scandal was erupting and triggering the #MeToo movement, Paltrow told The New York Times that early in her career, Weinstein made sexual advances toward her and verbally berated her. When asked about the Weinstein scandal during a Coffee Talk, Paltrow said, "To be honest, I'm still trying to process a lot of that."
Duplass, another Coffee Talk guest, also talked a bit about his early days as a filmmaker, which were less dramatic. It was the 1990s. He and his brother Mark were in their early 20s and living in New Orleans, when they picked up a video camera.
"We made this three-dollar short movie in 1996 [Connect 5]. We said to each other, 'This isn't too bad.' So, we submitted it to Sundance as a lark," said Duplass. "Then we get this crazy call from the director of the Sundance festival, who said it was one of his favorite short films. Mark and I said, 'This is cool. Let's just keep making fun of ourselves and make more movies."
The Duplass brothers now have their own production company and regularly produce, act in or direct feature films and television series. Their most recent project, the documentary miniseries Wild Wild Country, just dropped on Netflix, prompting a four-picture deal. Additionally, the brothers have penned a memoir, Like Brothers, which Random House will publish in May.
Much like Sundance discovered the Duplass brothers, the Sun Valley Film Festival has the potential to discover exciting new screenwriters via its 1 Potato Initiative. The SVFF 2017 1 Potato screenwriting prize went to Samantha Silva, who returned this year with a completed short film, The Big Burn.
"I want to thank this film festival for forcing me into and giving me one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Silva as the lights dimmed and her film debuted in front of a packed theater at the Magic Lantern Cinema.
Twenty minutes later, Silva stood before a cheering audience and said, "The things you're most afraid of are usually the most extraordinary things in your life."
The next order of business was announcing the winner of the 2018 1 Potato screenplay award.
"We saw a lot of submissions, some amazing screenplays, this year," said Laura Mehlhaff, SVFF director of programming. "But we're proud to announce that the prize goes to The Hole Truth, written by Irish Johnston."
A stunned Johnston walked to the front of the theater, and was handed the prize, which requires that her movie be filmed in Idaho.
"I'm in shock," said Johnston as she realized she has just 12 months to produce a film in time for the Sun Valley Film Festival 2019.
Sun Valley Film Festival 2018 Awards
Audience Award - The Audience Award is voted on by movie goers.
WINNER: Science Fair, directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster
Producer’s Vision Award - This award recognizes a producer’s ability to keep a dramatic, feature length film in focus during the journey of the project.
WINNER: Outside In, produced by Mel Eslyn and Lacey Leavitt; executive produced by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass; directed by Lynn Shelton
One in a Million Awards - The One in a Million Awards honor feature length stories made for under one million dollars. One narrative and one documentary film are each awarded.
NARRATIVE WINNER: Nona, directed by Michael Polish, produced by Kate Bosworth
DOCUMENTARY WINNER: Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Liu
The Shorty Award - The best short film across all categories.
WINNER: Uzma the Greatest, directed by Christopher Hawthorne
Gem State Award - presented by Festival sponsor Zions Bank, this $1,000 jury prize recognizes an Idaho filmmaker whose work best reflects the beauty and diversity of the Gem State.
WINNER: Haymaker, directed by Robert Moncrief
Film Jury members included: Jo Addy, Nat Faxon, Gill Holland and Maggie Mackay.
SVFF Film & Screenwriting Competition Winners
Nat Geo WILD TO INSPIRE - The lucky winner will get to try their hand at filmmaking National Geographic style as they depart on an expedition to Africa to document wildlife for Nat Geo WILD viewers
WINNER: The Embodiment of Hope, directed by Marvi Lacar and Benjamin Lowy
High Scribe - The competition gives finalists an opportunity for one-on-one meetings with some of the industry’s finest to discuss their work; the winner receives mentoring from an experienced professional. The lab host was Jay Duplass and judge was Kevin Walsh.
WINNER: Dark Horizons, by Carlo and Erin Carere
1 Potato Winner - The short screenplay competition awards the screenwriter a $5,000 stipend to help shoot their film in Idaho.
WINNER: The Hole Truth, directed by Irish Johnston
The Film Lab - Tito’s Handmade Vodka presented The Film Lab, hosted by Trevor Groth. Works-In-Progress films duked it out for $5000 in finishing funds, and received the unique experience of a ‘soft launch’ as they work to finalize their film.
WINNER: A Name Without a Place, written and directed by Kenny Riches
Future Filmmaker Forum - showcases student-made films and encourages students in their craft, storytelling, and self-expression. The Sun Valley Film Festival Future Fimmakers Forum is presented by Bex Wilkinson & Peter Burke, with support from the Marshall Frankel Foundation and COX.
WINNER: Aftershock, directed by Ryan Beard
SVFF Special Awards
SVFF VISION AWARD - pays tribute to an individual who has provided the keen insight, influence, and initiative to fulfill a creative vision.
HONORED: Gwyneth Paltrow
PIONEER AWARD - honors a producer or individual whose career choices are reflective of a true trailblazer.
HONORED: Kate Bosworth
HIGH SCRIBE AWARD – presented to a screenwriter who participates in a discussion on their current script and participates in a table read.
HONORED: Jay Duplass and Lynn Shelton
RISING STAR – presented to a breakthrough artist or filmmaker.
HONORED: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
SNOW ANGEL AWARD - given for outstanding advocacy work with a focus on environmental sustainability.
HONORED: Gregg Renfrew and Beautycounter