Kevin McNeely is the esteemed Executive Director of the Sonoma International Film Festival. He has taken on several other roles since it’s beginning. Interview conducted by Tanya Ruys.
Q: What is the purpose of the Sonoma International Film Festival? How did it begin?
McNeely: 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. 19 years later, we still are a highly spirited five-day festival that now has 100+ films from 26 countries with 200 attending filmmakers over five days. Our film festival is recognized as a “launch pad” for may indie films that go on to achieve distribution — both digitally and theatrically.
Q: What is your role in this festival? How long have you been involved?
McNeely: I have been involved for 19 years in various roles. The founder of the festival, Caroline Stollman, was a friend and was the reason I became involved. I have been on the Board, Chairman of the Board and then transitioned from Board into management eight years ago. I am now the Executive Director. We have four year-round staff members and at the time of the festival we have 18 employees and 200 volunteers that help us accommodate 4000+ festival-goers over five days at six screening venues that show five films a day. All screening venues and hospitality areas are within walking distance of the historic Sonoma Plaza.
Q. How do you select your special guests? What is the process for selection like?
McNeely: We will on occasion present Lifetime Achievement Awards for worthy recipients such as Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, John Waters and Robin Williams. 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 (SIFF = Sonoma International Film Festival).
Film selection: films are submitted through two popular online websites: Withoutabox and FilmFreeway. 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. 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.
Q: How is the festival funded? What kind of support does it receive? How does this festival support the local economy?
McNeely: Funding comes from a variety of sources such as foundation and government grants, corporate sponsorship, community support through philanthropic giving and festival Pass/ticket sales. 4000+ festival-goers come to Sonoma and stay in hotels, eat at local restaurants, purchase items at retail stores, and use local services.
Q: How many people traditionally attend this festival, locally and from out of town?
McNeely: 60% of the festival attendees come from northern California. 40% is made up of those from Los Angeles., Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York.
Q: What kind of goals does this festival hope to achieve? What kind of future do you envision for this festival?
McNeely: Our 20th anniversary is March 29 – April 2, 2017. 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.
Q: What is your favorite thing about this festival? What does this festival mean to you personally?
McNeely: 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. The fact that all screening venues are entirely walkable — no cars — plus the hospitality that features incredible food & wine all in the bucolic environment of Sonoma is memorable. I personally take pleasure in seeing this festival grow from an all-volunteer staff to a highly talented, qualified, well paid staff that puts on one of the nations’ top ten destination film festivals, according to one of the trades.
Q: Do you have any festival stories, anecdotes, or memories you would like to share?
NcNeely: At one of the screenings at the historic Sebastiani Theatre where any thing can happen, a film that was in progress came to a screeching halt and all you saw was the projector lamp burning through the film and the theater suddenly became dark. This lone person in the fourth row stood up before the house lights came on and looked at the projection booth and yelled, “even the projectionist is on wine!” He then went on to do 15 minutes of hilarious shtick until the problem with the projector and film was resolved. This lone person was Robin Williams . . . !
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