STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK
The walls of the Sun Valley Film Festival office on the floor above Il Naso are bereft of artwork or even movie posters, save for a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in Candice Pate’s office.
Instead, whiteboards snake around the rooms—a place for three full-time and 16 seasonal staffers to write last-minute reminders and strategies as the festival nears.
By Wednesday the festival will be in full gear with a hundred volunteers fanning out across Ketchum and Sun Valley to serve as movie ushers and gofers at Salon and Coffee Talks featuring filmmakers and actors.
A cinematransformer wrapped in Sun Valley Film Festival and Tito’s Vodka graphics will have rolled into its spot at Second and Main in Ketchum, offering a 91-seat state-of-the-art, high-definition, climate-controlled theater on wheels in the middle of the street.
And a beer garden will have sprouted in front of Rico’s Pizza as Sun Valley offers a front seat celebrating films and their making for five days during the month of March.
“This is our sixth film festival and it’s definitely bigger in terms of scope,” said Pate, the festival’s director. “Not necessarily the number of films but the quality. We pushed the festival back a week as a trial this year so it comes after SXSW. And that’s proven to be helpful in getting films. We have, for instance, several films coming off Sundance because we had a little more time.”
Indeed, the film festival, which kicks off Wednesday, March 15, and runs through Sunday, March 19, sports its strongest slate of films since its inception.
It will feature the documentary “Dina,” a film about the love story between an outspoken woman with autism and a shy Walmart greeter who also has autism. The film won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
It will feature Sam Elliott in “The Hero,” a film critics say shows Elliott at his finest. And it will have other films featuring such stars as Ellen Burstyn and Viola Davis.
Nat Geo Wild, one of the festival’s major sponsors, will screen three world premieres, including “Walking with Giraffes,” “Animal Moms: Toddlers,” and “Parched Money Flows,” which takes viewers beyond the public water scandal in Detroit.
The festival features several movies with local ties, including Ketchum mountain biker Rebecca Rusch’s “Blood Road,” about her emotional ride along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s “Big Sonia,” about Warshawski’s grandmother—a Holocaust survivor—will close the festival.
Program Director Laura Mehlhaff estimates she watched a thousand films to find the ones she believed fit this festival. Many were submitted to the film festival. She procured others after researching the hits at other festivals, reading reviews and talking with filmmakers and producers.
“We’re getting them new and fresh at the beginning of their life,” she said.
Mehlhaff is particularly jazzed about Alex and Andrew Smith’s “Walking Out,” a beautifully filmed piece about a father and son that was shot in Montana.
“Take Every Wave” fresh off Sundance Film Festival, is an easy to watch film that captures the remarkable life of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton.
“Menashe” a darling among critics, focuses on an ultra-orthodox grocery store clerk struggling to parent his young son following his wife’s death. It was filmed in secret in the Hasidic Jewish community in New York.
“L.A. Times,” another film that premiered at Sundance, features Dree Hemingway, who has spent much of her life in Sun Valley. Hemingway will be on hand to field questions following the showing.
“Get Out,” which features “Girls” good-natured Allison Williams, is a comic horror film.
“And my favorite is ‘Big Sonia,’ ” said Mehlhaff. “The story feels very timely in its subject matter. It calls attention to that part of history we would like to forget but shouldn’t. And it has a lot of heart.”
“It’s a big deal to be able to see these movies before their release,” said Pate. “And the filmmakers who take part in the Film Lab love getting audience feedback so they can tweak their films.”
The festival will also include plenty of glimpses behind the scenes, through its free Coffee Talks, Salon Talks and other events.
“We’ll have a panel about music in film. It’s a look behind the scenes with a DJ and composer—the people who make magic happen,” said Pate.
Geena Davis, who will be awarded the Festival’s Vision Award, will appear at a Grand Dames brunch sponsored by Zions Bank on Sunday.
“The work she’s doing regarding gender in media is really fascinating,” said Pate. “She started it because of her own daughter. Her motto is: If she can see it, she can be it.
“She’s gathered data-driven insight on how storytelling influences the self-esteem of women. And she talks powerfully about how, if a girl sees a woman doing something, she’ll say, ‘Why can’t I do that?!’ The number of women in forensic science, for instance, is exploding because of programs like “CSI,” that show women in that role, giving girls the perception ‘I can do that!’ ”
This year’s Coffee Talks will feature Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Brett Ratner and Allison Williams.
“The Farrellys are hilarious, Brett Ratner is a titan of industry and Allison is a genuine up and comer with a new film that’s breaking new ground in the horror genre, Pate said.
The festival generated a $1.2 million economic impact for Sun Valley in its first year. The 2016 festival garnered $5.7 million in direct and indirect impact, Pate said.
“It’s the third most impactful event in the valley after the symphony and wine auction, both of which are more than 30 years old. And it draws a young demographic—the average age of the filmmakers is in the mid-30s,” she added.
Among those who have taken note of the festival is the Belgium beer maker Stella Artois and “Entertainment Weekly,” both of whom approached the festival this year to be sponsors.
“ ‘Entertainment Weekly’ really likes the authenticity and that we’re young and intimate,” said Pate. “They were a founding sponsor of Sundance but they don’t do a lot of festivals. They have one other in Austin, and they’re really excited about our festival.”
“One of the things that makes the Sun Valley Film Festival great is that it’s so intimate, ”Pate said.
“You can run into the filmmakers while they’re hanging out at Festival Headquarters or grabbing a beer in town. You can meet them, talk to them, ask questions.”