Ari Lurie, founder of Highline Festival of Surfing

Ari Lurie, founder of High Line Festival of Surfing

Catching Up With Ari Lurie, Founder of the High Line Festival of Surfing

What was founded as the Mill Valley Film Festival has been rebranded into the High Line Festival of Surfing, a two-day event jam packed with surf culture, bringing screenings of up and coming surf films, music, and art  to the Bay Area--a lifestyle celebration that is much needed in the region, according to Founder Ari Lurie.

Lurie, a surfer himself, has been working to make the gathering a broader event for the past several years, and says everything is finally coming together for this year’s festival in September, including changing the name to better reflect what the festival stands for--”a global gathering of of surfers and ocean enthusiasts celebrating our lifestyle though film, music and art.”

“We are taking a broader and more integrative approach to the festival concept,” says Lurie. “The High Line isn’t solely a film festival. Music is a cornerstone of who we are.”

The festival has been lucky enough to partner with the Sweetwater Music Hall, owned by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and the hall is featured as one of Highline’s venues. Last year, musicians Mason Jennings and Rogue Wave headlined at the event. This time around, High Line will showcase renowned photographer Chris Burkard, providing him gallery space to share his work. On top of all that, well-known Sweetwater Music Hall chef Gordon Drysdale will be preparing organic dishes all weekend.

Intrigued by what’s in store  at the event on September 4-5th, we caught up with Lurie for some details on what’s been brewing behind the scenes.

Highline Festival of Surfing

Rocky Romano, director of big wave surfing series Maverick Moments, at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, now rebranded as High Line Festival of Surfing.

How did the idea of hosting a surfing lifestyle film festival that combines film, music and art come about? 

In the SF Bay Area we are surrounded by festivals, such as Outside Lands, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and Bottle Rocket. I think surfing needs one, too.

 Over the past two years you have received many submissions, what are your top three favorites?

Leah Dawson’s “Peanut Butter”, Kimi Werner’s “Variables”, Inge Wegge and Jorn Ranum’s “North of the Sun.” All three are inspiring in their own way. Leah’s film will make you so stoked to be a surfer. Kimi’s film is breathtaking and a reminder of our role in the ocean’s ecosystem. And Inge and Jorn’s film is a true, adventure story.

Do you charge admission fees or film submission fees? What are some of the other ways you generate profit around the festival?

I’m quite proud of the fact that we have no submission fees. In fact, last year we were the first surf festival that I know of to have a cash purse for the winning films. This year the High Line will be paying a fairly substantial appearance fee to all directors of feature films who attend our festival. We do a lot for our film directors and they deserve it. Their contribution to the surfing world is immense and they are not well-compensated, to say the least. The way the High Line is structured, we are going to thrive and be profitable through partnerships with the right businesses.

What do you expect attendance numbers to look like this year versus last? What ways are you working on growing the overall audience for this event? 

The first two years we used just one venue, and we had over 1,500 people attend the festival. This year the High Line will take place in three venues – The Sweetwater Music Hall, The Sequoia Theater, and Equator Coffee at Proof Lab Surf Shop. I predict our attendance doubling.

We do a lot for our film directors and they deserve it. Their contribution to the surfing world is immense and they are not well-compensated, to say the least. The way the High Line is structured, we are going to thrive and be profitable through partnerships with the right businesses.

Highline Festival of Surfing

Big wave surfer Garrett McNamara at Mill Valley Film Festival for Premiere of “Nazare Calling.”

Where do you see the High Line Festival in one year?

The High Line will host at least four different events this year: the main festival, multiple film screenings and a special dinner in LA for filmmakers and photographers. I see us doing even more events in 2015. We are a festival at our core, but we will host other inspiring events as well --dinners, art exhibits, and concerts with a surf-related theme.

How did you build a following for the festival? What specific strategies have been successful in gaining awareness?

Until 2014 we were fully grass roots. My friends and I walked around the Bay Area with posters and flyers meeting people and telling them to come celebrate surfing with us. Fans come to our events and the smiles on their faces at the end of the night are the best marketing I can imagine. People leave our festival feeling the authenticity and sharing it with their friends. With our vision broadening, we are shifting gears and will do more traditional marketing this year.

What is your background within surfing and the industry before launching the festival?

I’m an industry outsider for sure, but I’m way inside as a surfer because it’s who I am. It’s deep within me. The ocean was my salvation during an emotionally hard childhood. But when I was in the water I felt peaceful and at home; surfing was the place where I belonged. As a kid, my parents took us to some special coastal places, and I would wake up at dawn and hear the surf pounding – it called to me. Before it was light I would have my fins and board and be at the beach. That’s how I started, boogie-ing and body surfing. I still like to body surf once in a while, but you can usually find me in the water with a mid-length single fin under my feet.

What does the High Line Festival of Surfing mean to you?

When I am far from home and meet another surfer I am instantly connected to them because we share a bond with the ocean and a gratitude for what surfing means to our lives. The High Line is a festival that celebrates connection with the water and one another.


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First Annual Mill Valley Surf Film Festival