Oscar night red carpets were rolled out last Sunday around Sonoma County, including at Sebastopol’s Rialto Theater and at the Alexander Valley Film Festival’s (AVFF) Red Carpet Evening at Trentadue Winery. For those not already in the know, Sonoma County has a long relationship with Oscar-winning films, Hollywood visitors and our own local movie stars.

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

And, now we are also home to various annual film festivals, one of which, the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival takes place next month, March 26-29. The 13th annual Seb Doc Fest at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts will be screening 72 short-and long-form documentaries. The full schedule is being announced this week (Feb. 13.)

Big history was made at the 92nd annual Academy Awards last Sunday when the first foreign language film was selected as Best Picture. “Parasite,” by South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho actually won four Oscars that night. The gala audience at the AVFF Trentadue gathering gave lots of extra cheers for the winning film because many of them had seen it at last year’s AVFF in their own backyard, when it was screened along with 32 other films. The win by “Parasite” was a special Oscar moment for AVFF founders Kathryn and Ryan Hecht who claim to have given “Parasite” an ‘#AVFS Bump.’

As it turns out, Sonoma County has shared many of its backyards with Hollywood, serving as film locations all the way back to silent film days. Two of the earliest films made here were short westerns. “Salomy Jane” was filmed in 1914 and “Billy Bronco” was filmed at Monte Rio in 1915.

Everyone knows that Alfred Hitchcock put Bodega Bay on many tourists “must see” locations when he filmed “The Birds” here in 1963. Bodega’s St. Teresa of Avila Church and the Potter Schoolhouse next door are much-photographed destinations because of the cinematographic horde of fake black birds the master film director painted above the small town.

Sonoma County’s film history is a mixed screening of horror (“Scream” filmed in Healdsburg’s Plaza), nostalgia (George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” was filmed in downtown Petaluma and “Peggy Sue Got Married” was filmed at Santa Rosa High School), hilarious humor (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” was filmed at the old Santa Rosa airfield), music (“Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire was filmed at Monte Rio’s Village Inn) and controversy (“13 Reasons Why,” a film series shot at Analy High School included sensitive depictions of teen suicide.)

Hitchcock first filmed in Santa Rosa in 1948 (“Shadow of a Doubt”) and returned several other times for film shoots and personal visits. Movie stars Natalie Wood, Karen Valentine, Lassie’s Jon Provost, Winona Ryder and others were born here. Big stars like Fred MacMurray, Raymond Burr and Francis Ford Coppola moved here. MacMurray raised prized Angus cattle at his Westside Road ranch, now owned by Gallo, but still home to his daughter Kate. Burr had a small winery off West Dry Creek Road where he also grew orchids and Coppola has his eponymous winery in Geyserville. 

Many other Hollywood types and film stars have been spied in and around Sonoma County’s wine country landscape. Geena Davis and Seth Rogan were both married here (not to each other.) Last year, Windsor’s mayor Dominic Foppoli posed for a photo with James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan, at an environmental conference in Santa Rosa. Robert Redford, Robin Williams, Sam Shephard, among other famous names have friends or relatives here and Ethan and Joel Coen (The Coen Brothers) live just across the border in west Marin County. 

Sonoma County also has a film future. Both the Sebastopol and Alexander Valley film festivals include educational and student programs. AVFS works with county schools and supports video skills and media literacy curriculum at several schools. A free summer film camp is offered and a student film completion with awards is included in each year’s festival.

Watch for future year’s Oscar red carpets for one of Sonoma County’s homegrown talents. Meanwhile check out the March 26-29 film schedule at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival.

— Rollie Atkinson 

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