By Rhea Mahbubani
6:12 PM PDT, April 19, 2014
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."
Each volunteer is required to rate cinematography, direction, production, story and other criteria by picking a number from zero to nine. They also provide an overall grade for the movie. This scale is atypical in that it doesn't range from one to 10, but was created due to popular demand, Baker said — he's heard volunteers lamenting about a "horrendous movie" and how they were remiss to grant it even a one. So Baker, who advises against granting a film a perfect score — and has only given three nines — shifted the numbers down.
Baker, who was tasked with viewing 250 shorts — of which about 170 made the cut for the upcoming festivities — also devised a bar graph to indicate the number of movies watched by each volunteer. Participants can track their peers' progress on the festival's database, which leads to healthy competition, he noted.
That said, Baker makes it known that no figure is too small — any support is welcome.
"The implication is not that you are way down there or that you've seen six movies and others, 100," Baker said. "That doesn't make you a bad person. Maybe you have a life, you do something other than watch movies. We are very grateful for any time that you can give us."
Schwenk estimates that the volunteer turnout for 2014's festival will range between 750 and 800, which is higher than last year.
"This is truly a community event," he said. "I see volunteers who have been with us for 10, 12, 14 years. I see volunteers who have made lasting friendships with the people they have met while volunteering, and it's fun. I think people enjoy the work that they do, they realize that it's for a great cause and they get to see the fruits of their labor from right up front."
A veteran of VHS
Heather Feibleman is one such example.
The 17-year-old Corona del Mar High School junior began reviewing titles for the festival a decade ago. Since she was only 7, Heather remembers being enamored of the youth and family entries. Now, as she has matured, so has her taste, leading to an affinity for documentaries and independent features. Not only is she able to take her friends to watch the best of those she's seen, but the movies have also educated her on myriad cultures, people and languages that many people her age remain unaware of.
"I actually remember watching them on VHS," the Balboa Island resident said. "We had this small nook under the staircase where my brother and I would watch them on a little TV, and now we just do it online, which is really cool."
Despite a schedule that includes the California YMCA's Youth & Government program, volunteering at the Child Abuse Prevention Center and rowing, she has dedicated weekends, vacations and spring break to viewing about 30 movies. She recommended youth entries "Once Upon a Childhood" and "Wings of Peace," Academy Award winner "Mr. Hublot" and "A Cautionary Tail" from the "Shorts for Shorties" program.
While Heather watches some movies multiple times, fellow volunteer Charlie Bevins gives filmmakers only one chance to impress him.
The Costa Mesa movie buff speaks with obvious pride about having been a volunteer for the past eight years, doing everything from handling volunteer sign-ups to handing out brochures to attendees and attaching wristbands. Since Bevins has reviewed on average 150 films per year, he was approached by Baker with a request to join the programming team, which sets up showcase series and hosts filmmakers during the festival.
He lasted one week before returning to his preferred duties, which include setting up or taking down parties, helping to bring ice or beer and throwing away trash. Bevins has nothing against interacting with filmmakers and showing them around Newport Beach, but he felt unable to support the entire festival.
"When you're a volunteer, it reminds me a little bit of when I worked at Disneyland," he said. "It's great to go to Disneyland once in a while, but it's almost better when you work there because you can go behind the scenes. You can see how things develop. You're inside the ropes — you go where other people can't."
Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Bojana Sandic, the festival's co-director of shorts programming, offered the Daily Pilot some tips on reviewing movies.
1. Go beyond yourself
"When you're evaluating a film for the program, it's important to be able to separate the quality of the film from your own personal taste. Keep the wider audience in mind and give proper credit to a strong film whose topic may not be your personal cup of tea. Conversely, don't fall in love with the topic of a film so much that you overlook obvious flaws."
2. Note your immersion
"Pay attention to any elements that break your immersion in the film, including equipment in the shot, bad acting, continuity problems, or inconsistent costuming or setting. Most of these, in small doses, do not undo a film, but if they distract you from the story, they will likely distract an audience."
3. Pay attention to shaky camera work
"A shaky frame on a computer screen is one thing, but remember that when blown up to the size of a theater screen, it is much worse. With the exceptions of documentaries shooting short segments on foot, there is rarely a need to have shaky footage."
4. Consider the editing
"Every story has its perfect length, but many films get attached to their material and leave in unnecessary or repetitive parts that can ultimately make the film too long for its own good and harm the structure of the narrative."
5. Story above all
"Ultimately, the most important component of a film is the story. A beautiful production with a weak story doesn't cut it, and film with a strong one that comes across effectively doesn't have to be technically perfect."