Considering that Kathryn Hecht co-owns Cloverdale’s throwback Clover Theater and runs the nonprofit Alexander Valley Film Society, you’d think by now she’s grown accustomed to Hollywood endings.

Matt Villano

Columnist Matt Villano

Still, nothing could have prepared her for the support she experienced this past weekend.

That support followed a tough business decision — business-school geeks call it a pivot — about the third annual Alexander Valley Film Festival. Following the wildfires, Hecht and her board of directors decided to scuttle the usual plan for the festival as a revenue generator for the organization and instead donate all proceeds from weekend festivities to the Community Foundation of Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund.

“We know and believe in the transformative and healing power of art,” said Hecht. “We felt there was still a reason to have the festival.”

With thousands grieving incomprehensible losses across the county, the move was risky, to say the least. And given the breadth and scope of the tragedy, there were concerns that the community might not embrace a decision to move forward. But wonderfully, mercifully and improbably, they were wrong.

In reality, this year’s festival blew previous records out of the water. For starters, the 2017 shindig comprised 46 screenings, an all-time high. This year’s iteration sold more than 2,000 tickets; a 25 percent increase over the 2016 event and also a benchmark.

Hecht estimates more than 300 new people attended the festival overall. Perhaps most impressively, after paying its bills the AVFF organization raised more than $66,000 for fire relief.

The resulting celebration was the right event in the right part of North County at precisely the right time. Hecht and fellow organizers heard attendees say the community was desperate for something around which to rally, that the best kinds of distractions are good ones, and that being with neighbors at a dark time brought many people light.

At one screening Saturday, one patron told her that the event “felt like a giant hug” for the region.

“After we pivoted, our concern was how to move forward in a way that honored our work and the needs of the community,” Hecht said during a Monday morning post-mortem this week. “To say we were blown away by the interest and compassion from people this year, that would be putting it lightly.”

For Hecht, this celebration of community was four years in the making. The former actress moved to Wine Country from New York in 2013, intent on a new project, a new start.

That new beginning, of course, was the Clover Theater itself. One night, Hecht’s husband, Ryan, was Googling “movie theaters for sale,” and 10 pages into the search spotted the marquee for Cloverdale’s circa-1950 gem, which he now operates. The duo had to pony up nearly $240,000 to upgrade the theater’s projectors, a project that culminated with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $60,000 in five days.

The local community was critical in helping the Hechts achieve their goal back then. This weekend, in a sense, was Kathryn giving back.

Looking forward, the plan for the Alexander Valley Film Society is to continue promoting good art. This means ongoing monthly screenings and education-oriented programming. It means the annual Oscars fundraiser, for which attendees are encouraged to don red carpet-caliber outfits to come and watch the Academy Awards. It also means a 2018 festival with bigger expectations than ever before.

In other words, after the Hollywood ending of this weekend, life for Kathryn Hecht and the film society goes on. The best shows always do.

Matt Villano writes about good people in the community doing great things.

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