Napa Valley Film Festival Uncorks New Leadership, Rising Stars

Carole Horst

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Nestled in the rolling vineyards and Instagram-worthy towns, the Napa Valley Film Festival kicks off its ninth edition with a new leader, and a renewed mandate to build on its success. NVFF runs Nov. 13-17 in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga.

Entertainment industry veteran Tom Tardio took over as CEO in July, and reports to the Cinema Napa Valley board of directors, which also expanded its ranks over the summer.

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But that doesn’t mean the festival, which has cultivated deep roots in the local community, is going too corporate.

“We have over 400 volunteers in the community that work all of the venues,” says Tardio. “Whole Foods supports the volunteers. That to me is a small town coming together for a five-day festival. That to me is unique.”

A potent mix of wine, food and film, NVFF programs a competition section — chosen from about 1,000 entries — and also plays host to awards season hopefuls. James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” unspools on the festival’s sneak preview the night of Nov. 12, and Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” officially opens NVFF Nov. 13. Other awards season hopefuls at the fest include Alfre Woodard starrer “Clemency,” France’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Martha Stephens’ “To the Stars” and “Troop Zero” with Viola Davis.

Tardio makes it clear where he stands on the whole streamers vs. festival debate that’s been raging when he breaks down his four pillars that fuel Napa. “Definitely film, and what I mean by that is anything that’s on a screen.”

Indeed, closing night hosts the premiere of “Verticals,” a series from new food and wine streaming platform SOMMTV. “Verticals” showcases Napa Valley winemakers and the human condition through a bottle of wine.

The festival adds more glamour with its awards. Kevin Bacon is slated to receive the Charles Krug Legendary Actor honor, while Olivia Wilde will be honored with the Raymond Vineyards Trailblazer award. Jillian Bell will receive the Spotlight award and Vanessa Hudgens will be honored with the Blackbird Vineyards Visionary honor.

Napa’s Rising Star showcase includes Kelsey Asbille (“Wind River,” “Yellow­stone”), Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones,” “The King”), Jacob Elordi (“Euphoria”), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Luce,” “Waves”), Liana Liberato (“If I Stay,” “Light as a Feather”) and Mena Massoud (“Aladdin,” “Run This Town”).

Tardio was CEO at Rogers & Cowan and during his 28 years there worked within every facet of the biz, including with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He cites fashion and music as other pillars in his plan for more year-round activities involving the festival, but makes sure to cultivate a key component of Napa tourism: food and wine.

“I set up several vertical pillars but never lose sight of the tremendous culinary experience as another pillar,” he says. He would like to broaden that experience at the festival with more national food and wine media tie-ins, even showcasing content from Food Network and Cooking Channel at the festival.

Food Network and Variety will be hosting Film to Table, featuring eight chefs and their creations inspired by films, as well as a panel discussion with chef Jet Tila and Napa fest filmmakers and stars including director Elizabeth Carroll (“Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy”), actor Celine Tsai (“Stealing School”), helmer Jesse Zigelstein (“Nose to Tail”) and actor Bernardo Pena (“Bring Me an Avocado”) . NVFF also programs food demonstrations with chefs and wine and spirits tastings.
Going forward, Tardio expects to deepen the connection with the food and wine community even more.

“I call it my 2020 vision. I’m getting tremendous support from my staff and board of directors and hopefully we’ll be able to execute this vision,” he says.

Community engagement and education are also two mandates at NVFF.

“It’s very important for the films we select and the more than 1,200 students from Calistoga to Napa that when they are bused in and they participate, they are shown an experience and film of quality that they can feel good about,” says Tardio. He wants to make “sure that our roots are tied down in the community and that we stayed true to our mission of delivering inspirational film and filmmakers to the youth so hopefully that makes a difference on local, regional and even national level.”

One of films that the students will screen this year is a documentary called “Code & Response,” which follows first responders around the world who are supported by innovative technology.

“We’re going to invite the [local] fire departments and rescue departments to the screening at the Lincoln [Theater in Yountville]. We just want everyone to be aware that there’s a bigger initiative out there around the globe around the challenges of technology whenever disasters occur. That’s the linkage to the diversity of audiences that the festival appeals to.”

Another new element this year is the Panels at Blending Lab, a series of talks and wine tastings that takes place on Long Meadow Ranch.

For example, Tardio notes one called Woman in Film, Woman in Wine, with Nina Dobrev of competition film “Run This Town” scheduled to talk. “It’s a unique discussion about bringing a product to market in traditionally male-dominated industries,” he says.

Another signature element of Napa is its Artist in Residence program, in which the directors of the fest’s competition films participate in master classes, breakout sessions with industry leaders and other special events. Five-star Meadowood Napa Valley presents the program and hosts the filmmakers.

“[Cinema Napa Valley] chairman Patrick Davila has been so aggressively engaged and making sure it’s well received in Hollywood. It’s the perfect educational experience that allows these young filmmakers to learn and engage. ”

As for the future, Tardio acknowledges that the festival hasn’t spent enough time “participating and engaging and illustrating how this festival can be extremely relevant” to the communities surrounding Napa. “I don’t want this to be just a great festival for five or six days. We have very dedicated content communities from Hollywood to Silicon
Valley — you’ve seen the expansion of the whole streaming experience over the last five years — I want it to be 12 months of activities. I want it to be committed to the same vision of tying together these communities and supporting our education platform.”

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