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Newport International Film Festival, 1998

     "Amazing" was the word uttered again and again from filmmakers, press, and audience at the First International Newport Film Festival, June 2-6. How could a first-time film festival possibly be this good? Have such arresting new movies, such thoughtful panels? Such interesting guests, from animator Bill Plympton to jazz drummer, Chico Hamilton? Such elaborate Gatsby-style mansion parties, including a gala clambake at the girlhood home of Jackie Onassis?

     (I was there as member of a three-member jury for documentaries, and we were definitely impressed with the non-fiction films we had to choose among for prizes. Eight out of ten were really fine.)

      How could three nice young women living in New York--Executive Director Christine Schomer, Festival Director Nancy Donahoe, Director of Programming Maude Chilton--with help from astute friends, have pulled it all off, both financially and artistically? Especially when you discovered that the trio had no festival experience among them, and that the pie-in-the-sky idea for a Newport Film Festival had been introduced over coffee just 14 months ago.

     Schomer, who had worked as a researcher and booking guests for Letterman in New York and then The Tom Snyder Show in LA, returned to Manhattan with a vow to get out of TV. She met one day with Donahoe, producer of an independent short, about making a film together. Instead, Schomer proposed: let's make a film festival!

     Schomer, a native of Barrington, Rhode Island, told me, "Growing up here, I thought you had to leave this state to be in the entertainment industry, But I came home one weekend when Amistad was shooting in Newport, and Michael Corrente, who made American Buffalo, was filming in Providence. I realized, the film industry is stimulating the Rhode Island tourist industry.

     "There should be a Newport Film Festival! Nancy and I decided to push it really fast, this awareness we wanted to capitalize on."

     In one year, they lined up a formidable "A-list" of Festival sponsors, including US Magazine, Nortek, U.S. Airways, Fruit of the Loom, Skyy Vodka, and Kodak. Using Colorado's Telluride Film Festival as a model (though they've never been there!), Schomer and Donahoe planned out an on-foot festival, for which audiences and guests could saunter between hotels, seminars, and the Fest's moviehouses, the single-screen Jane Pickens and the twinned Opera House.

     "Nancy and I sent ourselves to Sundance in January to see how a festival works, how volunteers are used, how theaters and events are run. Then The Newport Daily News to sent us to the Berlin Film Festival. As a consumer, I found Berlin impenetrable, and I was pickpocketed. But we did get several films to show at Newport.

     "For the initial year, we tried to do everything, to aim incredibly high, although we were cautioned not to. We'd have 75 screening, panels, events every day, parties every night. I've never known such a frenzied pace. And I'd thought Letterman was frenzied."

     June 2, Opening Night at the Jane Pickens. In the lobby, Schomer marveled that people were buying popcorn, that the Festival was really happening. Inside the theater: another coup. Miramax Films had been persuaded to make the Newport Fest the site for the American premiere of its major release, The Mighty. Miramax boss, Harvey Weinstein, delivered a gracious speech, comparing this night to something from Cinema Paradiso.

     The Mighty, about the friendship of two boys, a low-esteem giant of a 13-year-old and his high-IQ tutor in leg braces, proved too sentimental and manipulative for me; but much of the audience laughed,cried, applauded. Weinstein left for New York, assuredly pleased.

     But what if he'd stuck around to see some films?

     I believe he would have been writing a fat check for Miramax to distribute That Was You, a hot-from-the-lab Chicago-produced indie which, in its world premiere at Newport, promptly captured the Audience Award for Best Film.

     As the only movie critic to have seen it, I'm with the crowd.

     Let me proclaim: That Was You is the real thing! Here's that warm, humanist, brilliantly written comedy that everyone waits for, with a screwball ensemble of Chicago actors, none famous, providing a totally pleasurable evening at the cinema. (And there's a recent Bostonian producer, Lisa Spencer.)

     The behind-the-scenes making of this movie is nifty: a long-retired Second City performer, Tom Bastounes, sold his family grocery business, Capital Produce, and, with that revenue, hired his pals, directors of commercials, to write a semi-autobiographical screenplay about him. They'd direct, he'd star. Incredibly, it worked. Rino Liberatore and Ron Lazzaretti co-directed beautifully. Bastounes is a wonderfully charming, relaxed screen presence, a total natural, providing the most unlikely movie debut since Sly Stallone in Rocky.

     Bastounes plays a Greak-American in the family grocery produce business who, divorced and floundering, dreams of rekindling his life by taking up with his gorgeous ex-flame (Monica Zaffarano), now a world-famous opera diva.

     I predict a bidding war for That Was You among American distributors. Remember, it played first at the First Newport Film Festival.

(June, 1998)


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