If there’s one thing that underscores the charm of the Maui Film Festival, one thing that goes beyond moving stories about the human condition and feel-good slogans, it’s the fact that organizers screen many of their films under the stars.
The festival’s "Celestial Cinema," which sets up on the grounds of a golf course and features Dolby surround sound, has proved so hypnotic that audiences don’t even notice when it rains.
"Living in Hawaii, it makes total sense," said Stella Rivers, co-founder of the event with her husband, Barry Rivers. "Why not watch them outside and have outdoor venues? Hawaii at nighttime is just ideal conditions."
The festival also screens films at the Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului, but its outdoor venue at Wailea is its signature. Movies are shown on a 50-foot-wide, three-story-tall screen at the Wailea Gold and Emerald golf courses. The area is shaped like a natural grass amphitheater and can host up to 1,700 people.
"The sound bounces off the lower slope of Haleakala," Stella Rivers said. "It creates a beautiful circle of sound that we love."
Now in its 11th year, the festival starts its five-day run Wednesday with a tribute to young actor Zac Efron and the Hawaii premiere of "Bran Nue Dae," an Australian film that blends Broadway-style musical comedy, Aboriginal culture and Roman Catholic ritual. The festival lineup features 40 films that showcase "compassionate filmmakers," according to Barry Rivers.
"I enjoy presenting cinema that enlightens people and exposes them to infinite possibilities rather than directs them to yet another dark cesspool of culture," he said. "I use different terms to describe it. Smart with heart. Stuff, not fluff. Movies that matter."
What that means is films without car chases, huge special effects and women in peril, he said.
HEARTTHROB ZAC EFRON ANSWERS 5 QUESTIONS
Zac Efron is living the Hollywood dream: The 23-year-old actor has movie-star good looks, an adoring fan base of teenage girls and a new movie, "Charlie St. Cloud," which opens July 30. The romantic drama, also starring Oscar winner Kim Basinger, sees Efron playing a guilt-ridden young man trying to move on after the accidental death of his little brother. The Maui Film Festival will present the "High School Musical" heartthrob with its Shining Star Award on opening night of this year’s festival. We caught up Efron with via e-mail.
QUESTION: What was your reaction when you learned that the Maui Film Festival was going to give you its Shining Star Award?
ANSWER: I was stoked. Not only is it a huge honor, but I’ve been looking for a chance to come back to the island. I have so many great memories there.
Q: What attracted you to your role in "Charlie St. Cloud"?
A: It looked challenging and fun. It’s a different type of character than I have done before. His journey is a powerful one. It really left me thinking.
Q: Because it’s so different from some of your previous roles—it’s been described as a departure from "squeaky clean" to serious drama—what do you hope it will do for your acting career?
A: "Charlie St. Cloud" still has that wish fulfillment that the audience would expect based on my other films. However, it feels more suspenseful, mysterious and supernatural. It is a much more emotional role. I hope it serves as a memorable transition into older, more complex characters.
Q: What films are you planning to see while on Maui?
A: I, unfortunately, have to get right back to L.A., so I won’t have the chance to experience the entire festival.
Q: How do you explain the fascination people seem to have with your hair? Google your name and "hair" and you get 1.3 million hits.
A: That is a big number!!!!!! I don’t understand the fascination, and I’m still a bit shocked by it.
Among his favorites this year are "Boy," "Happythankyoumoreplease," "Waste Land" and "Castles in the Sky." Those selections comprise everything from a wacky comedy set in a Maori village and a quirky indie film about three New York couples, to a mesmerizing study of the world’s largest trash pile and a surf epic shot around the world.
The 62-year-old Rivers has been involved in filmmaking and television production for more than 25 years. He has produced or directed programs for NBC and CBS sports, ESPN, MTV and other networks, and as president of Teamwork Communications he created programs that featured Hawaii sporting events.
But the film festival is Rivers’ driving passion. He got the idea in 1999 while sitting around a pool with a friend who worked on the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. The whole thing was scribbled on cocktail napkins.
Audiences were immediately excited by what they saw—and have remained that way, Rivers said.
"People believe in the fact that we are trying to do something special here on Maui," he said. "They are sort of enthralled by how magical it is when the circus comes to town for five days."
The festival, which organizers estimate has pumped more than $70 million into the Maui County economy since its inception, has drawn the support of major studios, including Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight, said Georja Skinner, chief officer of the Creative Industries Division of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
"It’s very high profile," Skinner said. "The people who come—the producers and the stars—are well-known commodities."
Among those who have attended and received honors from the festival are Joan Allen, Adrien Brody, Pierce Brosnan, Tim Burton, Claire Danes, Geena Davis, Zooey Deschanel, Clint Eastwood, Jake Gyllenhaal and Helen Hunt.
Efron and surf filmmaker Taylor Steele are this year’s special guests.
Efron will receive the Shining Star Award, which honors rising young talent whose screen presence "guarantees as much light as heat." He is best known for the wildly popular "High School Musical" television movies and film release, and roles in "Hairspray" and "17 Again," as well as his All-American good looks and tousled hair.
Steele is being honored because his surf films have become the genre standard.
Filmmaker Joel Moffett, who teaches at the University of Hawaii’s Academy of Creative Media, is ecstatic that his new film, "Poi Dogs," will have its Hawaii premiere on Maui. The Wednesday screening in the Castle Theater will be the first time one of his films has been shown on Maui, where he grew up.
"Although it is a smaller festival, its reputation in the world of festivals is stellar," he said. "They are a very exclusive festival. I don’t think people in Hawaii are aware of how exclusive the Maui Film Festival is."
It definitely views itself as exclusive. The films that make Barry Rivers’ final cut are culled from nearly 1,000 submissions a year, he said. Rivers chose "Poi Dogs," a film about an unlikely relationship between a football player and tuba player, possessed "a wonderful sweetness."
It’s a quality he looks for, but finding a good film is like coal mining, he said.
"Very few get in," he said. "It is actually astonishing to find a piece of work that is stunning. That’s one of the beauties about having a ‘jewel box’ festival. Our mission is not to find 200 films, but to find the best stuff we can."