Who can say what the script looks like for a perfect film festival? Cannes, Sundance and Telluride claim international notoriety, superstars and top-tier films. I've attended all of the above film festivals and more; and when asked to recommend one over the other, I offer caveats that begin with two questions: "How many thousands of dollars do you plan on spending?" and, "How do you feel about standing in line for four hours to see a 90-minute film?" The film festival experience, like other high-profile events such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl, can turn out to be a slog and can be glaring examples of the growing chasm between the haves and have nots.
Then there's the Sun Valley Film Festival. Still in its infancy (this is its fourth year), SVFF has struck a unique balance of accessibility and affordability, along with more than its share of glitz and glamour. SVFF Director Candice Pate likes to call it a "sweet mix."
"We certainly own the things that make the festival unique, but there's also the significant factor of the capacity of Sun Valley. With a few years under our belt, I'm realizing that it's a sweet mix of both," Pate told Boise Weekly. "Hopefully our choices reflect that, with the films that we choose and the talent that we bring. It still remains to be seen, but it sure feels pretty good right now."
There are significant milestones in the life of a film festival. In Sun Valley, the first was the 2013 appearance of two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, who cautioned attendees to, "Remember how it is now. Years from now, the lines may be longer, and you'll think back." SVFF's next major landmark will undoubtedly be this year's appearance of four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood.
"I can't tell you everything about how we secured Mr. Eastwood, but he made a film here [1985's Pale Rider, filmed in the Boulder and Sawtooth mountains], and he loves Sun Valley," said Pate. "I know that he gets requests to be honored 17 times a day, but I think the reason he said 'yes' to us is that he really gets what we're doing."
Eastwood was nominated for another Oscar for the current box office sensation American Sniper. The film won the Best Sound Editing Oscar, with a team of technicians giving a shout-out to Eastwood during their acceptance speech. And when Eastwood arrives in Sun Valley, he'll receive SVFF's inaugural Lifetime Vision Award.
"[Eastwood] keeps besting himself, and he has a career that has had so many peaks," said Pate. "I'm sure that he'll have another peak five years from now. But for now, we have him."
Through its highly popular "Coffee Talks," SVFF will also allow attendees to get some face-time with Bruce Dern (Nebraska, Coming Home) and Bill Paxton (Titanic, Apollo 13, Big Love), who will pull double duty by hosting a 20th anniversary screening of Apollo 13.
"I really felt that getting some higher-profile talent this year would help us get on the radar of folks in the industry and certainly attendees," said Pate. "Getting to spend time with all this talent, actors, Oscar-nominated screenwriters and directors, that's the intimacy part of our festival. When I visit other festivals, part of me is envious of their infrastructure and huge sponsors, but what we offer is our special guests—and attendees can interact in a relaxed environment and truly celebrate filmmaking."
More than 60 films, curated from hundreds of entries, will be showcased on screens throughout the Wood River Valley, with something new coming to some place old: The Sun Valley Opera House. Just in time for this year's festival, the Opera House has undergone a $60,000 projection and sound upgrade.
"It's a world-class experience juxtaposed in an historic opera house. It's a huge investment by the [Sun Valley] resort," said Pate.
As for visitors, Pate said, "What really blows me away is that I've been watching our sales of festival passes come in from Italy, Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, you name it. I want to email each one of them and ask, 'How did you hear about us?'"
It turns out that SVFF spends little on national advertising, instead investing in its internal communications/public relations arm to help tell its story.
"Word of mouth is a big part of it. Honestly, some of that comes from reading your articles or blogs in Boise Weekly," Pate said. "A lot of people who come to explore the festival feel like they're the ones that discovered it."
The trailblazing resumes Wednesday, March 4, and with Clint Eastwood at the end of this year's trail, it's certain there will more "explorers" at SVFF 2015.