Roll Film! The New Jersey Film Festival Boom

New Jersey is the new hotbed of festivals celebrating cinematic talent.

Courtesy of Montclair Film Festival/Dennis Connors.

Once upon a time, you had to travel as far as Park City, Utah, or Cannes to soak up the glamour and excitement of a film festival. Now you don’t even have to leave the state. In recent years, film festivals of all sizes and ambitions have popped up around New Jersey—to the great benefit of film lovers and filmmakers alike.

When 2012 closes, more than 50 film festivals will have been held within our borders. They bring noteworthy independent, avant-garde and documentary films to local theaters and other venues. Many include seminars, lectures and meet-and-greets with filmmakers.

“People get to see great movies they wouldn’t see otherwise, and that aren’t targeted to young, adolescent males,” says Albert Nigrin, a cinema-studies lecturer at Rutgers University. “They get to rub elbows with the famous and with up-and-coming filmmakers in an unpretentious atmosphere.”

Nigrin founded the New Jersey Film Festival, one of the first such events in the state, now in its 31st year.

The festival presents short films, documentaries, music videos, experimental films and feature films throughout the fall and spring at Rutgers University.

“We’re a thinking-person’s festival,” says Nigrin. “I do it as a labor of love, because I want to turn people on to interesting films.”

New Jersey, of course, was present at the creation of the film business. Thomas Edison’s Black Maria, which began operating in 1893 in West Orange, is considered America’s first film studio. Studios proliferated here in the early 20th century—especially around Fort Lee—before filming was shifted to Hollywood, where the climate is more conducive to shooting year-round.

These days, New Jersey is better known for exporting star talent to Hollywood—think Streep, Nicholson, Sarandon, Gandolfini. But its many film festivals help keep the state abreast of the state of the art.

Some festivals are university based; others are known as marketplace festivals, which aim to connect filmmakers with distributors. Then there are the plentiful variety that Nigrin calls “chamber-of-commerce film festivals,” which mainly seek to bring people to town (where it is hoped they will spend freely). Most Jersey film festivals, Nigrin says, are of the latter type.

“They don’t really bring in challenging films, such as political movies,” he explains. “I’m not criticizing them—they are doing a great community service, providing a wonderful place for filmmakers to show their films to an interested audience. That’s very commendable…Where else are you going to go to see a short film?”

Virtually all are non-profit; most operate on slim budgets. Studios, distributors and filmmakers rarely charge festivals for showing their movies. Organizers typically cut attractive deals with the places where the films are shown. Tickets usually range from $8 to $12 per screening or event.

Some festivals organize themselves around themes. The travelling Black Maria Film and Video Festival, based in Jersey City, focuses on short films. The Newark Black Film Festival, a six-week event, showcases work by and about African-Americans. The 13th Annual Rutgers Jewish Film Festival will bring Jewish-themed cinema from around the world to the New Brunswick area October 30 to November 11. In West Orange, JCC Metrowest also stages an annual Jewish film festival.

Other prominent Jersey celebrations include the Garden State Film Festival, started by well-known film producer Diane Raver, held in Asbury Park in April; and the Cape May Film Festival, scheduled for October 19 through 21. Like other festivals in the state, Cape May focuses on work by New Jersey filmmakers; this year’s event also plans a Marilyn Monroe retrospective.

The Hoboken International Film Festival, which takes place in June, this year honored Jersey native Paul Sorvino. At the Teaneck International Film Festival, scheduled for November 9 through 11, Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order fame) will present The Contradictions of Fair Hope, a documentary she co-directed and produced. In August, the film—about the Fair Hope Benevolent Society of Uniontown, Alabama, one of the last of the black organizations formed after the Civil War, originally to help freed slaves—was honored as the Paul Robeson Best Documentary at the Newark Black Film Festival.

The biggest splash in some time was made in May, when the Montclair Film Festival launched amid much fanfare, thanks in part to the fame of two of its advisors: Comedy Central cult hero Stephen Colbert, who lives in Montclair, and Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, a former resident of the town.

“I was exposed to art through the Spoleto Festival when I was a kid growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, and that really inspired me to become a performer,” Colbert told New Jersey Monthly on opening night. “I hope this festival exposes more kids to do the same.”

The six-day Montclair fest screened more than 45 films in five different venues, hosted free panel discussions, and featured appearances by actors Kathleen Turner and Patrick Wilson and filmmaker Michael Moore. A free trolley ferried filmgoers from venue to venue, where they could buy merchandise, including T-shirts (“It’s Sundance, only Jersier”). More than 265 volunteers pitched in to make the festival run smoothly.

“I wanted the town of Montclair to have the same kind of energy and excitement you can feel at Park City during Sundance,” says MFF founder Bob Feinberg, referring to America’s best-known film festival. “And I really did see that kind of excitement here.”

Montclair’s programmers took risks, showing provocative work such as Cloudburst, an independent film directed by Thom Fitzgerald and starring Dukakis, about a pair of elderly lesbians on the run from the law; and Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, a documentary about  the “father of trash television.”

Unlike most Jersey festivals, Montclair’s was run by paid professionals. The organizers hired husband and wife Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen. Powers is a programmer for the large and prestigious Toronto Film Festival; together, the couple ran Stranger Than Fiction, a weekly documentary film series at Manhattan’s IFC Center. Montclair bet that Powers, in particular, had the expertise and connections to obtain high-quality films and attract Hollywood talent. The bet seems to have paid off.

“Festivals that are smart, like Montclair’s, will use high-profile people, such as celebrities and well-known filmmakers, to help them stand out,” says Nancy Collet, a Los Angeles-based film consultant. “Otherwise, it’s impossible to get recognized.”

In fact, Montclair landed several high-profile films screened at Sundance in January, including Robot and Frank, a comedy about a retired cat burglar, starring New Jersey natives Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon, and About Face, a documentary about aging supermodels. The Morton Downey Jr. documentary had been shown at the respected Tribeca Film Festival in New York just weeks before Montclair.

The inaugural Montclair Festival had a budget close to $500,000, which Powers calls “very high for what it offers.” But, he adds, it “ended [the] fiscal year with a small surplus, which is a great outcome.”

At a time when many people watch movies at home or on mobile devices, film buffs appreciate the opportunity to come together to watch—and talk about—independent films that normally fly under the radar.
“It’s the communal experience of watching those movies that’s so wonderful,” says Collet. “These aren’t big blockbuster action movies, these are movies that often spark really interesting conversations afterward. We have audiences that are so hungry for these new and different films. It can be a very moving experience. I sometimes find myself talking to complete strangers next to me.”

Filmmakers value small festivals as a source of audience feedback. If they’re savvy, Collet says, they will enlist festivalgoers to join their social-media sites.

The Montclair festival also reinforced the community’s long-time association with the arts, says Feinberg, who is general counsel to the public television station WNET.

“Many of us were responding to the loss of Luna Stage [now in West Orange] and 12 Miles West, and the demise of the Montclair Arts Council,” he says. “We wanted to help fill a void. A lot of us moved to Montclair in part because of the town’s commitment to the arts, and we didn’t want to see that go away.”

Seth Kramer, 41, one of the filmmakers on the Downey documentary, relished having his movie shown in Montclair so soon after Tribeca.

“There’s no marketing here, no sales people. It’s just a chance to have a great time and connect with the audience,” says Kramer, who grew up in West Orange and invited his whole family to the Montclair event.
“Even a childhood friend from kindergarten surprised me at the screening,” he adds with a smile.

Just another perk of showing your film in a place where you have roots.

Film buff Jacqueline Mroz has attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, for the past four years.

Click here for a comprehensive list of film festivals in New Jersey.

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