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Visionary Ben Warner says no movie theater, no problem! – Laguna is nevertheless a natural for a Telluride-style film festival

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ben Warner and his friend Mark Draper, a board member of Laguna Canyon Foundation, recently completed a fourteen-and-a-half-mile “Pint-to-Pint Run” across the coastal hills, beginning with a beer at Newport Coast and ending with an ale at The Ranch – an activity that perfectly reflects Ben’s passion for nature, his joie-de-vivre, and his sense of adventure. 

And these are exactly the qualities that Ben is bringing to bear in realizing his dream: the first-ever Coast Film Festival, focused on all aspects of the outdoors, scheduled to take place in Laguna Beach from November 7 to 9 at a variety of local venues. 

“Laguna’s an incredible town,” says Ben, a good-looking, self-effacing but ambitious man who has lived with his family in the same house on Park Ave since 1998. “We attract visitors because of our reputation as an art mecca and of course because of our coastline and nearby wilderness parks. 

“Now imagine if we add to that a reputation as the oceanside equivalent of Telluride or Sundance, with the twist that we showcase original, compelling films telling stories about our natural environment, as well as outdoor sports. That’s my goal.”

Visionary Ben smeil

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Ben is hard-pressed to think of an outdoor sport in which he hasn’t participated – he loves the outdoors

From an early age, Ben has been passionate about outdoor activities including snowboarding, skiing, surfing, horse riding and mountain bike riding – and many others. Halfway through our interview, I found myself curious as to which outdoor sports Ben hasn’t participated in. This question stumped him for a while. 

Then it struck him. “Scuba diving,” he said. “And I have no idea why not.”

In the meantime, he’s taking a deep dive into the world of film festivals.

A magical mélange of movies, music and even munchies

Ben’s grand vision for the event includes not only inspirational movies but a mélange of music, art, photography, and foodie/wine events surrounding the festival.

“I want this multi-day event to really resonate with locals,” he says. “It has the potential to bring together so many of the creative threads that make up our town.”

A film festival in Laguna Beach may seem quixotic, given that our one and only movie theater is closed and doesn’t look likely to open anytime soon. Ben looks wistful at the mention of the theater – but, always resourceful, he has solutions. 

“For one thing, we plan to utilize the Forum Theatre on the grounds of the Festival of Arts, which is really a terrific venue,” he says. 

Ben’s also planning a form of pop-up tent theater at Seven7Seven on the Canyon Road, where a big screen and sound system will be installed for the event. Food and beverages will be available for purchase, bands will play, and an art gallery will be set up at the venue.

During the three days of the festival, there’ll be talks and conversations with experts, along with the film showings. Oh, and whiskey tasting, don’t forget the whiskey tasting.

Ben is a natural when it comes to nature

Ben admits that he came to conservation late, though he has always loved the outdoors. Growing up on an isolated farm in Connecticut among chickens, goats, and cows, he spent his childhood exploring the acres of woods and streams surrounding his home, glorying in fishing, horse riding, and building forts. In his teens he interned on a horse farm in Wyoming. 

“I also had a lot of chores,” he says. “So I learned to be work hard and be responsible.”

Visionary Ben cactus

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Ben takes his inspiration from the natural world

He loved to watch Warren Miller skiing movies and created collages of sports figures, cutting out photos from magazines to decorate his room. He started a ski club at his high school, found the time to play hockey too, and wore a beloved Quiksilver T-shirt with mountain and wave logo until it was threadbare.

Determined to head West “where there were bigger mountains, a bigger sky,” Ben followed his heart and moved to Colorado, where he landed a job he loved, selling classified ads for Powder Magazine, a publication he’d devoured as a kid. 

One of his key achievements was pioneering the Powder Video Awards, now often called the biggest night in the skiing world. This experience foreshadowed his recent work in developing the Coast Film Festival. 

Later, relocating to Southern California, he sold ads for Surfer Magazine, a sister publication, eventually rising to the position of Vice President, Group Publisher, for the Action Sports Group, a division of Primedia.

Nature served Ben, and now Ben serves Nature

For a long time Ben regarded nature as a wonderful playground, a place for sports activities of all kinds, and as the source of a career he very much enjoyed – but in those days he didn’t pay much attention to the importance of sustainability. He was focused only on the next great adventure that might await him. 

“Then, it was all about me,” he says wryly.

That changed for good when he landed a job as the National Advertising Director for the Sierra Club in 2014. Ben says the move to a nonprofit organization was at first challenging.

“Here was a 120-year-old legacy organization that was moving only slowly into the twenty-first century and not using many digital marketing strategies,” he says. “It wasn’t easy to adjust, to implement a more modern business model, but I’m beyond grateful for my time there because it gave me a fresh look at the world. 

“For the first time I became fully aware of the fragility of our planet, that it isn’t just a playground, it’s vital for our existence. I learned about the challenges of climate change and the importance of conservation for future generations,” he adds.

A Lagunan through-and-through

While his focus is currently on making the Coast Film Festival a success, Ben also runs Skeleton Key, located on Forest Avenue, an agency focusing on purpose-based marketing.

Visionary Ben cleanup

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Ben is hands-on when it comes to cleaning up the environment

He is also the co-founder of Laguna Beach Magazine, with which he is no longer associated, though he remains proud of its mission to reflect the pride in, and passion for our town that residents feel. 

“I love Laguna. It’s the closest thing to an East Coast town in terms of community feel and access to the outdoors,” he says. “And it’s a natural for a creative event like this, especially in the off-season.”

Indeed, the Coast Film Festival will make good use of iconic Laguna venues, including the Hobie Surf Shop and the Marine Room Tavern, where the first night’s celebrations will take place. 

The event is intended also to showcase homegrown talent. “I want to bring people, especially young people, together to share a broader vision about the importance of sustainability,” he says.

Featured locals will include, among others, Pat Parnell, event host and well-known sports commentator; Greg MacGillivray, famous director/producer of incredible IMAX movies; and Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. Local film producer Richard Yelland will have a film in the Get Outside short film block. Others will be named later.

Moreover, Ben feels that Laguna is the perfect home for his “awesome” wife Kirsten and two kids, daughter Piper (18) who is studying environmental science at Cal Poly SLO, and son Tate, a sophomore at Laguna Beach High, a member of the surfing team and the golf team. “I’m the parent member for the LBHS Challenge Success Committee,” Ben is proud to note.

Ben and Kirsten met in Squaw Valley, skiing (of course), and they married there in 1998.

“The toughest thing was persuading Kirsten to move from San Francisco to Southern California,” he says. “But now she loves Laguna. Living here and raising a family here is the best.”

And it’s about to get even better (naturally) for them, and for the town, as Ben watches his film festival come to glorious life.

For more information including schedule and tickets, visit www.coastfilmfestival.com.