A Celebration of Independent Film: The Billtown Film Festival

June 17, 2012

I am a self-professed movie geek. I pretty much love everything that pertains to movies: I love sitting in a dark room, alone or surrounded by a crowd of strangers, becoming totally enveloped by captivating storytelling. To me, seeing a well-made film is on a par with reading a fantastic, engrossing novel.

I think I first became truly interested in the art of moviemaking when I was about ten years old and sat with my grandfather in his living room. We watched the eight-hour-long, commercials-laden, drawn-out screening of “Gone with the Wind.” The movie had all the components of a sprawling epic: fantastic actors, a saga-filled story, elaborate set design and costumes, etc… It was the origination of the term “blockbuster.”

Since then, I have learned to appreciate many genres of film. I’ve come to the realization that not every great film is a multi-million-dollar endeavor. In fact, sometimes it’s the smaller films that pack the biggest punch. Some of my absolute favorite films are of the independent genre, which is why it’s rather amazing (and a bit shameful) that this year was my first time attending The Billtown Film Festival. Established in 2008, the BFF observed its third annual event April 19-21 at The Community Arts Center in downtown Williamsport. This year’s theme being “Art, Women and Environment,” the three-night festival showcased a wide array of both short and feature-length independent films.

I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with the BFF’s founder, Richard James, to discuss the festival’s origins, inner workings, and plans for the future. Inspired by the concept of someone taking on such task, unusual for this area, I had many questions. In James’s home office, I asked him what prompted him to take on such a job. “I was doing some community work as a way to promote my business as a graphic designer and that led me to a number of different things,” said James. “I recognized that we needed to bring more revenue into the city. That was the first idea–I didn’t have anything to really work with–it was just sitting in my head.” After the 2008 Governor’s Arts Awards in Williamsport, James thought, “Why can’t we do this once a year?’” but he didn’t have any understanding of what it would take to make it happen. James did a brief survey and started asking people about a film festival. The overall response from his friends was positive. “They were all in agreement, ‘Oh yeah, this is a great idea. Our town needs this.’ I stuck with that idea and decided push it forward and see what happens,” he said.

James proceeded to feel out different avenues for finding and obtaining films, with the assistance of other people involved in the community art scene. He cites Leah Peterson and Lynn Estomin, both from Lycoming College, as well as local filmmaker Lorena Beniquez, as being a great help during this process. James also said that John Yogodzinski, an area artist, graphic designer and photographer, was “an integral part of the process.”

A committee was established of various film lovers, who assisted James in the festival planning. What resulted was a two-day film festival, the first night composed of Lycoming College students’ work and the second night consisting of films from local women filmmakers. “It was minimal,” said James. “But we started the process of appreciating film that wasn’t your typical Hollywood blockbuster.”

Despite his pioneering a fantastic new artistic outlet for the area, James remains incredibly modest, stating that assembling the BFF has been “basically, all luck and a maybe a little bit of skill.” When assembling the festival each year, James feels that although he is in a way “traveling blind” through the process, things ultimately will end up falling into place.

By 2011, in just a year, the festival had already expanded significantly, partly because of the BFF taking pointers from larger national and worldwide film festivals.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger each time,” he said. “The second year was our first real opportunity to create a program. I knew there were other film festivals in the world; they’re online. I looked at last year’s winners and thought, ‘Well, they may have been shown someplace else, but Williamsport hasn’t seen them–especially the short films.”

James contacted the filmmakers directly, asking for permission to obtain and screen the films. The response was overwhelming: “These [independent] filmmakers were ecstatic that someone wanted their film. I was getting DVDs from all over the world, from Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as the states and locally, too. We had this whole mixture of stuff, so it was just a matter of putting things in order.”

While James spends much time networking and seeking out films, sometimes the films find him, thus leading to the discovery of additional material: “Last year, I ran across this one film about an old woman who continued to do modeling, as a nude model. It was part of a larger suite of films called LunaFest. I contacted them to be included in the BFF. It was something they were not used to–it’s typically a standalone operation. They approved my application and sent me the films.” After he had secured the nine short films, “It was just a matter of filling out the rest of the program.” James continued looking at and finding other films. LunaFest ultimately became the 2012 festival’s opening-night feature.

Although James confesses that, in spite of the committee, he ultimately has “carte blanche” in finalizing the festival line-up, he strives to consider the interests of community filmgoers: “I try to discern what the public would like to see. I try not to make it about me. We have a committee and I’m asking them for their input. For instance, two films this year–Truck Farm, which had to do with the environmental piece more than anything else, a very funny film, and also a film by a local high school student who won a state award, called Ballad of the Earth–were computer animation. We want to encourage young filmmakers to do their thing, and we want to continually encourage more area involvement in independent film.”


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