Dennis Baker is the co-director of short film programming for the Newport Beach Film Festival. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / April 19, 2014)

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Dennis Baker is inclined to associate with winners.

That's not to say he won't help an organization, initiative or individual get closer to victory. But, when that doesn't work, he has no misgivings about cutting loose or moving on.

"My energy goes to where I see success," the Corona del Mar resident said. "I like being associated with things that work. I like to think that I'm part of why they work."

One such alliance is with the Newport Beach Film Festival.

In 2001, Baker, then a member of the city's Arts Commission, attended an event where he met Leslie Feibleman, director of special programs and community cinema. When she invited him to become part of the festival, he readily agreed.

"I started at the top and worked my way down," he quipped, having gone from VIP to volunteer in a span of one year.

Baker, one among part of a cadre of locals who conscribe to keeping the festival running like a well-oiled machine, has since played many parts — collecting leftover newsprint, recycling paper and driving guests around Orange County in his van.

Once, he acted as a tour guide for a filmmaker couple from Hong Kong, showing them around the peninsula and pier and taking them to lunch. That upbeat, hands-on approach continues to be reflected among the festival's volunteers who, at a moment's notice, lend a hand wherever needed.

He also spent a year reviewing movies before moving into programming features and shorts. From 2012 until a fortnight ago, Baker acted as director of short film programming. He now shares the title and responsibilities with Bojana Sandic, who joined the team as an intern and has worked her way up.

Baker credits a short attention span for his proclivity for movies that must be 40 minutes or less — and he's not entirely joking.

"I don't have a very high tolerance for bad stuff," he said. "I'm being honest with you. I'm hard-pressed to watch a bad feature. It would be very difficult for me to watch 90 minutes of a bad movie, but I can watch 30 or 40 minutes of a bad movie — and I have."

Submissions are accepted from August until the end of January. It isn't out of the ordinary, though, for filmmakers to complete their projects after the deadline and approach organizers in February or later. While they are mostly encouraged to contribute their work to the next festival, exceptions have been made, Baker said, based on the quality and timeliness of the film.

This year, a documentary titled "The War Photographers" was one such exception, Baker said, which squeaked in "because it was exceptional." Other entries that impressed him were "Educaution," which explores college, debt and the American dream, and Thomas Rio's "Hsu Ji Behind the Screen," told from the perspective of a young Chinese girl.


A perfect 10? Impossible

Having visited the Mediterranean Film Festival in Split, Croatia and a bevy of others in Toronto, Palm Springs, Huntington Beach and Los Angeles, Baker finds that the Newport Beach Film Festival has proved itself as a filmmakers' festival.

It's not that others treat their guests poorly, but Newport Beach is a tourist town and most people don't want to spend all their time in a darkened theater. So, despite the fact that almost 400 movies from 35 countries are being showcased between April 24 and May 1, each filmmaker is, at minimum, given a volunteer's name and email address and, in most instances, a cell number. The team even suggests popular and affordable Orange County hotels, restaurants and bars, as well as nearby sightseeing spots.

And then, there's the caliber of films screened.

Each submission is viewed at least five times by reviewers, screeners and programmers — in chronological order of influence. It's common for seven or even nine pairs of eyes to take it all in.

"There are many festivals that will have one, maybe two individuals watch a portion of a submitted film," said Gregg Schwenk, the festival's CEO and co-founder. "And no matter how proficient those reviewers may be, that's a very limited set of input. We felt it was unfair to the filmmaker, so we tried to devise a review process that focused on quality, and the overarching mandate was that it was extremely fair and respectful to the filmmaker. Our dedication to [them] starts the moment they submit their film to the festival."