The Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF)  takes place deep within the heart of Northern California’s abundant Wine Country in Sonoma, CA. Now celebrating its 19th year, the festival is operated as a 501c3 non-profit organization and has grown to feature more than 100 hand-selected films that include independent features, documentaries, cinema and short films from around the world.  SIFF is widely acknowledged as one of the top-ten film festival destinations in the world.

Opening night at SIFF. Photo: Robbi Pengelly -
Opening night at SIFF. Photo: Robbi Pengelly – sonomanews

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Our film festival is recognized as a “launch pad” for may indie films that go on to achieve distribution — both digitally and theatrically.” – Kevin McNeely[/pullquote]

Dedicated to promoting independent film and supporting filmmakers from around the world, the festival aims to motivate film lovers and “provide a welcoming, entertaining and inspiring cinematic experience that . . . celebrates cultural diversity in the Sonoma Valley through the art of film.”According to the festival’s Executive Director Kevin McNeely,  some 4000+ festival-goers and over 200 filmmakers travel to Sonoma to attend the events.

The Media Arts Program at the Sonoma Valley High School. Photo: sonomafilmfest
The Media Arts Program at the Sonoma Valley High School. Photo: sonomafilmfest

The festival occurs every spring as five-day community event that takes advantage of a temperate Mediterranean-style climate  to feature wine and cuisine from local vintners and artisans, live “red carpet” concerts, celebrity guests, and lavishly themed after-parties for its festival-goers. The event, normally hosted at the downtown Sebastiani Theatre, has recently expanded to include several venues dubbed as the “SIFF Village.” All screening venues and hospitality areas are within walking distance of the historic Sonoma Plaza.

SIFF also supports the Media Arts Program at the Sonoma Valley High School. Under this program, local students produce films that are screened at the Sebastiani Theatre during the annual festival event.  Set up in 2002 under SIFF’s sponsorship, more than a thousand students at the high school have benefited from the program.


Robin Williams with Lauren Hutton at the SIFF Awards Show. Photo:sonomafilmfest
Robin Williams with Lauren Hutton at the SIFF Awards Show. Photo: sonomafilmfest

The Sonoma International Film Festival, originally known as the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, was founded by Carol Stolman and Jerry Seltzer and produced under the fiscal sponsorship of Sonoma’s Sister Cities Program/ “The festival was started in 1997 by a group of Sonoma residents that wanted a good reason to have a big party on Saturday night and did not care if the films were terrible,” says Kevin McNeely, who himself has been around since the beginning, taking on various roles before becoming its Executive Director.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Our goal is to program premiere films, honor A-list actors, put on spectacular evening galas, create amazing food & wine events showcasing Sonoma Valley’s top wineries & restaurants, and ultimately creating a friendly, engaging environment with filmmakers and festival attendees.” – Kevin McNeely[/pullquote]

Local celebrity residents such as Danny Glover, Francis Ford Coppola and John Lasseter from Pixar/Disney were some of the first to be honored at this relatively small festival, which grew over the years. The celebrity guest list expanded over the years to include A-List names such as  Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Meg Ryan,  Michael Keaton, Lauren Hutton, and Christopher Lloyd.

The Backlot of SIFF. Photo: Robbi Pengelly -
The Backlot of SIFF. Photo: Robbi Pengelly – sonomanews

April 2002 marked the debut of food and wine-tastings at the screening venues. The screening program was doubled and featured industry panels,. SIFF also introduced the Sonoma Valley High School Media Arts Program. The festival expanded to six screening venues in April 2008.

In April 2010, the  festival featured its first backlot tent in the center of Sonoma Plaza. It served as a hub for events, sponsor areas, box office and festival partners.  April 2012 highlighted Latino films “Vamos al Cine” at their own special venue and hosted a live show by John Waters.

Red carpet concerts at SIFF. Photo: sonomafilmfest
Red carpet concerts at SIFF. Photo: sonomafilmfest

In December 2013, The Sonoma International Film Festival’s recent 007 Masquerade Party at Buena Vista Winery helped to generate enough funds for SIFF to donate $25,000 to Peter Hansen’s media arts program at Sonoma Valley High School. The Sonoma Valley International Film Festival’s recent 007 Masquerade Party at Buena Vista Winery helped to generate enough funds for SIFF to donate to the Media Arts Program at Sonoma Valley High School. In December 2013, SIFF Executive Director Kevin McNeely presented Peter Hansen with a check for $25,000 at the conclusion of the high school’s annual holiday broadcast in the media arts studio.

Galas, after-parties and concert events soon became a major draw of the festival. April 2014’s festival offered Party Passes to festival-goers for the first time. This gave them access to red-carpet events, exclusive parties and awards ceremonies where they could mingle with filmmakers and special guests. March 2015 emphasized themed parties such as Whisky Á Go Go, Prom Night, and a Salsa Swing Party followed by Despues de la Fiesta.


[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The diversity of filmmakers from the Middle East, to Russia, to Europe to Mexico and South America bring incredible films to our festival that have never been seen.- Kevin McNeely[/pullquote]

The festival prides itself on its multitude awards to honor its celebrity attendees and filmmakers.  “We will on occasion present Lifetime Achievement Awards for worthy recipients such as Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, John Waters and Robin Williams,” remarks Kevin NcNeely. “We have also honored John Lasseter (Pixer/Disney), Danny Glover, Michael Keaton, Lauren Hutton and most recently Meg Ryan for her directorial debut for her film ITHACA. When we select a film that will screen during the five-day festival, we will invite the actor and/or director if available to attend, and will honor them with our festival award for excellence, the SIFF Salute.”

Every year, films are submitted through two popular online websites: Withoutabox and FilmFreeway. Over 800 films from all over the world are submitted for consideration. “We also send staff to Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance Film Festivals to secure popular films from these respective festivals,” says McNeely. “We then have a ten-person review committee that selects the film finalists. There are, finally, two of us that will decide the 100+ film program.”

Here are a few examples of this year’s winning films (2016):

Best American Independent Feature:
The Great and the Small
USA, directed by Dusty Bias

Best World Feature
Papa: Hemmingway in Cuba
Cuba, directed by Bob Yari

Best Documentary
In Search of Balance
USA, directed by Adam Pfleghaar

Best Documentary Short
Rosa – These Storms
USA, directed by Sean Kusanagi and Hannah Gregg

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