Napa Valley Film Festival

Napa Valley Film Festival
Napa Valley Film Festival. Courtesy of the Napa Valley Film Festival

The Napa Valley Film Festival is a blending of the area's special emphasis on food and wine with the art of film making. They show a schedule that leans toward food and wine themes, along with a selection of international and documentary selections. Like most film festivals, this one showcases a lot of emerging talent, but it also feature some familiar names. Past screenings included films featuring Judi Dench, Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

Besides the film screenings, you can sample the local vintages at afternoon wine pavilions in Yountville, Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga. Other festival events include winemaker dinners, and panel discussions about film, food and wine.

It's possible to do the festival as a day trip from surrounding areas, and we felt that the price of a one-day pass was well-spent. If you're going for the whole weekend, you can get some great ideas in the Napa getaway planner.

Likes and Dislikes

We like the informality of the Napa Valley Film Festival and its uncrowded venues - and were pleasantly surprised at the number of high-quality films being shown. The combined emphasis on good cinema, great food and wine make this film festival unique among those we've attended.

And we love the number of actors, writers and directors who showed up to interact with their audiences, far more than we've seen at other California film festivals. With leisurely schedules and lots of time between showings, there's plenty of time for Q&A, too.

We also like the variety of films offered, with enough recognizable names to make things interesting. Unfortunately, trying to put together a personal plan is hampered by a confusing, hard-to-navigate website. Making your way through it is worth the trouble, but using the printed program was much easier.

The Venues

Films are shown in locations spread over the entire Napa Valley, from Yountville to Calistoga. If you're familiar with the area, you may be wondering where they find enough screens to pull it off, but in fact, a number of venues show films. Bigger ones include the Cameo in St. Helena, winery event rooms, the Napa Valley Opera House and a variety of other locations.

Some of the other venues are more rustic, prompting actor Alan Cumming to quip before the showing of the film he starred in: "I love wine drinking and cinema in an old shed," which was in fact the Calistoga Gliderport. It had clean portable toilets outside and a large section of real movie theatre-type seats set up inside, with a local winery serving their vintages to sip while you watched. As you might expect, projection and sound were adequate but not world-class. It's a detail that hardly matters for the kind of intimate, story-driven films the festival features and within minutes, it fades from notice.

Crowd Factor at Napa Valley Film Festival

The screenings we attended in 2013 were comfortably full. Over the past years, this festival has picked up so much acclaim in the industry, and that screenings have become sold out, although last minute tickets seem to be still available.

Tips for Enjoying the Napa Valley Film Festival

  • It's nearly impossible to find a nice, well-rated hotel room anywhere in Napa Valley at the last minute, unless you're willing to spend over $300 a night for it. If you plan to spend more than one day at the festival, make your hotel reservations several weeks in advance, or even longer for the best selection. Use these tips to make the process easier. If you want to know more about each of the Napa Valley towns, check our guides to Calistoga, St. Helena and the town of Napa.
  • Because of the spread-out locations, you need to take travel time into account when planning your day. Film schedules are well-spaced, making it easy enough if you pay attention. Whatever your favorite online map directions may say, allow twice that in travel time to account for busy traffic, especially on CA Hwy 29 around St. Helena.
  • Get the most for your money. Familiarize yourself with the festival perks and you can save money on your experience, getting discounts at many local restaurants, wineries, and shops. We were happily surprised to find some top-notch eateries like Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen offering good discounts to festival passholders.

How to Get to the Napa Valley Film Festival

Most festival visitors come from San Francisco and San Jose. Find out all the ways you can make the trip.

This festival is so spread out that it's not feasible to just show up and decide what to do. Showings start at the same time in several different towns, and it can take more than 30 minutes to get from Napa up to Calistoga. Because of that, you should decide what film you want to see and then you'll know which Napa Valley town you're headed for.

Tickets and Reservations for the Napa Valley Film Festival

You can buy passes online for just one day or for the entire festival, which is the most convenient way to get them. Individual ticketsfor specific screenings are available, but closer to the date of the festival. It's a pet peeve of ours (and maybe yours, too) when a website forces you to "register" just to buy something, but that's what you'll have to do to buy online.

The Basics

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission for the purpose of reviewing the Napa Valley Film Festival. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.