Stars and cinema at the Valley Isle’s premiere movie event

Even independent cinema veterans approach the Maui Film Festival with a certain breathlessness. They call it the “Sundance of the Pacific,” or “SandDance,” and it’s earned enough clout to attract an impressive list of celebrities (who probably don’t mind packing bathing suits in lieu of snow gear) for a wide selection of distinctive movies, thought-provoking panel discussions, red carpet affairs and fine cuisine.

Now in its 10th year, the five-day soiree takes place June 17 through 21, with an estimated 20,000 people expected to pass through one or all of the events. A-list attractions always generate headlines, but festival director Barry Rivers says that most attendees seek those “small little discoveries,” the films that spark discourse, alter perspective and become the unforeseeable highlights along the way.

The star quotient may be a bit higher at Sundance and Cannes, but there is something singular about what unfolds every summer on Maui. The unparalleled setting in Wailea establishes an elite yet intimate and accessible atmosphere, where Hollywood powerbrokers start their day with a walk along the beach and celebrities mingle with festival attendees.

Last year, former James Bond Pierce Brosnan lounged by the pool at the Four Seasons Resort Maui. Dennis Quaid played with his twins. William H. Macy accompanied wife and Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman to dinner in an outdoor café and a screening of her new independent film. Sideways star Virginia Madsen graciously chatted with anyone who approached.

And everyone frequents the films. Rivers calls himself an archaeologist in his effort to traverse the country in search of compelling stories, and venues such as the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, the sandy beach and a 50-foot wide screen atop a hill at the Celestial Cinema on the Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Course only enhance the selection.

“This is the best location to screen your movie,” says Randy Miller, the director of Bottle Shock, an acclaimed film about the emergence of California wines on the world scene in 1976. He wasn’t thrilled when his movie premiered on an average screen in a library at Sundance. But on Maui, “You’ve got the clouds floating overhead, the screen is really bright, and the sound is good. You hear about these types of festivals in Europe, but not here. It’s pretty cool.”

For this and many other reasons, “It’s clearly recognized by the industry as a heavy-hitting festival,” says Hawaii state film commissioner Donne Dawson. “It’s bringing the type of film industry folks that we need to have making movies in Hawaii.”

Despite the glamour, the festival has never lost sight of is modest beginnings. “It started with the idea of ‘Hey, let’s show movies under the stars, but do it at a level that was technically A-plus-plus,'” Rivers told Hawaii’s Reel Stories. “Out of that has emerged a five-day event that incorporates 70 films, 25 shorts … and several world class culinary events.”

Many film aficionados consider themselves foodies as well, and the Maui Film Festival exceeds expectations on both fronts. Opening ceremonies last year featured Taste of the Island, a gourmet dinner from the Fairmont Kea Lani’s newest fusion restaurant, Ko, where the casual outdoor setting and impressive guest list facilitated networking over black bean opah, fried rice with shrimp, freshly made sushi and Ocean Vodka rose martinis.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary evenings of the entire affair takes place on the grounds of the Four Seasons Resort Maui with the Taste of Chocolate. If the topless mermaid (yes, she’s real) lounging poolside as guests walk in isn’t enough, chocolate fountains, chocolate-covered fruit and fluffy, warm soufflés cooked in a portable convection oven under the stars complete the decadent evening.

The festival closes with the gourmet Taste of Wailea, which invites the area’s top restaurants and hotels to prepare small portions of their signature dishes for guests to sample on the golf course with sweeping views of the ocean. The Grand Wailea Resort & Spa served braised Kobe beef short ribs with grilled white corn, sweet pepper and spinach salad. Potato gnocchi with wild mushroom ragu, pine nuts and shaved Parmigiano came from Mulligans and Matteo’s, but the longest line formed behind Ko’s buttery lobster.

“This is the most spectacularly catered film festival I’ve ever been to,” says Hawaii filmmaker and Sundance veteran Brett Wagner. “It’s very relaxed and mellow.” Sundance feels like business, he adds, “whereas this feels like a little vacation.”

When attendees aren’t dining or watching films, panels bursting with experts discuss the future of digital media or independent films, for example. Visiting actors also engage in a one-on-one discourse with moderators that allow fans to ask questions and enjoy the star at length.

Past celebrity guests have included Claire Danes, William Hurt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rob Reiner and Clint Eastwood, among others, and their presence glamorizes everything. But at the Maui Film Festival, everyone in the vicinity feels like a participant rather than an observer. And that is what sets this festival apart.

For information or to purchase tickets, visit www.mauifilmfestival.com.