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Sonoma Film Festival captivates film-lovers

  • Sonoma Valley HIgh School seniors Gina Peil, 17, Kyra Hinton, 17, and Jen Howlett, 18, attend a screening of student short films at the Sebastiani Theatre at the Sonoma International Film Festival on Sunday, April 6, 2014 in Sonoma, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Under blue skies on Sonoma's historic plaza, corridors of trees bristling with springtime greenery lead to a large white tent directly behind the stone City Hall.

A sign announces the tent is "The Backlot."

If that isn't enough to establish the setting, in front of City Hall is a sign of cut-out letters about 12 feet tall that spell "SONOMAWOOD." It's a nod, of course, to Hollywood, the dream factory that independent film festivals like the Sonoma International Film Festival both veer from and aspire toward.

Sonoma International Film Festival

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Cut to the front of the landmark Sebastiani Theatre on The Plaza's east side, the festival's premiere venue. Festival executive director Kevin McNeely stands outside; the theatre's restored Italianate facade rises above him.

"Less than 20 percent of films that go to film festivals, it doesn't matter if it's Cannes, Sundance or Sonoma, get distribution," says an animated McNeely, cutting to the heart of the film festival's reason for being.

Cut to the foyer of The Backlot tent, where festival Director of Operations Mary Catherine Cutcliffe is fielding reports from venues around town over her radio headset.

Sunday was the event's closing act. More than 100 films were shown through its five-day run, including selections from 22 countries. Some 200 volunteers helped out. At least 3,500 people came last year and more did this year, Cutcliffe says.

"We've had amazing attendance," she says, sitting in The Backlot tent. "We have people from out of town, from out of state... A lot of turnout from the larger Bay Area."

And, oh, the parties. A Saturday night dance party celebrated the screening of the documentary "Queens & Cowboys," about a season with the International Gay Rodeo Association.

Cutcliffe leans forward: "We went through 1,000 pieces of glassware in an hour," she says. "I shouldn't say that, probably, but it's true."


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