Newport Beach Film Festival’s 18th annual run has come to a close, marking another year that the SoCal luxury spot has fostered the growth of Orange County’s regional filmmaking identity.

Hosting the largest participation of international moviemakers in its history, which included films from 58 countries with delegations attending from Australia, Germany Ireland and Canada, NBFF’s (April 20-27) programming brought special attention to Irish, European, Latino and Pacific Rim spotlights. While this expansion of the festival’s global reach diversified the backgrounds of its attending talent, the more down-home aspects of its scene came in the form of its opening night surfing-themed showcase, which brought together local musicians, government officials, moviemakers and pioneering big-wave rider Laird Hamilton for the premiere of Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.

Big-wave surfing icon Laird Hamilton beams at the premiere of Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton during the opening night of Newport Beach Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Newport Beach Film Festival

A Malibu resident whose connection to Newport Beach has been forged over time through the town’s prime surfing conditions, Hamilton was the model citizen to rep the fest as it kicked off—everyman enough to embody the area’s beach-centric vibe and legendary enough in his field to evoke the sense of SoCal sports legacy that the showcase sought to solidify. Hamilton is, according to The Los Angeles Times“credited for pioneering tow-in surfing, a technique that uses artificial assistance to allow the surfer to catch faster moving waves than was traditionally possible when paddling by hand.” In addition to rendering a portrait of a rider dedicated to overcoming the limitations of fear, Take Every Wave explores this ground—or wave?—breaking achievement.

Beyond its traditional blend of classic and contemporary, studio and independent fare, NBFF also held collegiate, environmental, family and youth screening series, comprising a list of more than 350 films seen by approximately 55,000 guests.

The festival’s breezy, low-key atmosphere and mostly walkable locations were well-suited for aspiring independents who attended its free instructive industry seminars, which offered in-depth conversations on visual effects, editing, acting, music, cinematography and screenwriting with such panelists as Arthur Jeppe, (VFX specialist, Independence DayFrozenBig Hero 6) Nat Sanders, (editor, Moonlight) Aisha Tyler, (actor/host, The TalkCriminal Minds) Ray Costa, (president of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winning firm, Costa Communications) Bryce Zabel, (screenwriter, creator of Dark Skies and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) Toby Oliver (cinematographer, Get Out) and others.

Performers play with fire at one of Newport Beach Film Festival’s many lavish spotlight celebrations

These conversations took on an inviting tone that weaved in and out of broad, career-spanning talk, to practical advice on craft, to specific, substantive looks at excerpts from films that panelists played and explored with the moderators at length. For young up-and-comers, NBFF’s seminars alone served up enough to make each day they were scheduled worthwhile, and it was encouraging to note that a great many members of their audiences were indeed in their teens (though of course the crowd’s ages ran up and down the gamut). Panelists often made themselves accessible outside of these events as well, and seeing friendly exchanges and hangouts shared by visiting guest speakers and first-time filmmakers—both around the facilities where they took place and around fires that lit the poolside cabanas of the Island Hotel, where many attendees, myself included, spent their stay—was a regular occurrence.

Of NBFF’s hefty slate of selections, Joyce Wong’s coming-of-age comedy, Wexford Plaza; This Is Your Death, the Josh Duhamel-starring pitch-black satire of network television about a show that broadcasts live suicide, directed by Giancarlo Esposito; Eleanor Coppola’s Alec Baldwin and Diane Lane-starring romantic comedy, Paris Can Wait were screened as “centerpieces,” among others.

Serving on the festival’s jury this year were Claire Best, CEO and owner of Claire Best & Associates, Hunt Lowry, producer and CEO/President of Rosework Films, actor Robert Reed Carradine, Mike Repsch, Senior Vice President of Distribution and Sales at Breaking Glass Pictures, Arianne Rocchi, VP of Publicity at Magnolia Pictures/Magnet Releasing, Larry Greenberg, Head of Acquisitions and Domestic Distribution for Ambi Media Group, Oscar Nominated writer/director Tom Van Avermaet and Todd Slater, co-founder and partner at Blue Fox Entertainment. Jury Awards were presented to Moon Dogs, (Best Film and Best Actor for Jack Parey Jones) Katie Says Goodbye, (Best Actress for Olivia Cooke and Best Screenwriter for Wayne Roberts) Sanctuary, (Best Director for Len Collin) Boys in the Trees, (Best Cinematography for Marden Dean) and City of Joy (Best Documentary).

Eoin Macken, Aisha Tyler and Nat Sanders at Newport Beach Film Festival

Tyler was presented with the Artist of Distinction Award for her work with organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the Trust for Public Land organization, International Rescue Committee, and the Family Violence Prevention Fund. The honor was not only an acknowledgement of Tyler’s philanthropic and activist efforts, but was also the latest in a series of lasting bonds established between her and NBFF; her directorial debut short, “Ar Scáth le Chéile,” first premiered at the festival in 2016.

Sanders and co-editor Joi Mcmillan received the Breakout Award for their recently Academy Award-nominated work on Moonlight. While the award for Mcmillan further signified her newly held place in film history, (her nomination for the Oscar was the first that an African-American has received in the category) both she and Sanders’ sharing of the honor was a nod to the elegance and resourcefulness of their cutting collaboration.

A slew of suit-and-tie parties were at the heart of each night’s screening series’ “spotlight celebration,” honoring NBFF’s mission to reflect Newport Beach’s culture of “casual sophistication.” For every snapshot taken amongst newfound friends and colleagues at these swanky affairs, a round of vodka shots was almost guaranteed to serve as its toast. MM