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This article by Christopher Zinsli was prepared for the May 5, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Climax for a Lifelong Dream
`It’s always been a lifelong dream for me, since I was a kid," says Kevin Williams, director of the Trenton Film Festival. A lifetime of movie-going and working in the film industry has only intensified the Trenton-born-and-raised cinephile’s resolve in bringing a major film event to his hometown. By the age of 35, it looks like Williams has achieved his goal.
But Williams and the rest of the Trenton Film Society aren’t content with a humble gathering of local film-lovers and curious passers-by. They are hoping the first annual Trenton Film Festival, playing May 7-9 at various locations in Trenton, will be a first rate, wide-reaching event that will stoke what Williams calls a recent "economic renaissance" in Trenton.
"We’re taking the film-going experience and tying it with economic development to contribute to the city of Trenton in a positive way," says Williams. Festival attendees will be encouraged to patronize local restaurants and coffeehouses during the course of the festival, bringing new customers into the neighborhoods. For their part, Williams says, local entrepreneurs can look forward to some extra foot traffic.
"We like to say that we’re reviving Trenton one movie at a time," says Williams.
The Trenton Film Society grew out of a meeting between prominent figures in the local arts and business communities hungry for alternatives to the mainstream multiplex fare of central Jersey. The group gathered at Williams’ home in December of 2002 to discuss the possibility of bringing a film festival to a city that, ironically, does not have a single movie theater.
Williams stepped forward to serve as artistic director of the Film Society as well as festival director. He says the Film Society hoped to create "a sense of place and a sense of culture" in Trenton through a series of small film-related events. Over the past year and a half, this string of screenings, discussions, and seminars allowed the Film Society to test the waters. "We wanted to see if there’s a market out there, and we did," says Williams. "People want what we’re offering."
The events were well-attended, and many sold out, according to Williams. Each event, he says, pulled in "new folks from further and further away," paving the way for this month’s main event. Having proved the viability of holding successful film events in Trenton, the Film Society turned its sights to the festival.
"We had a challenge ahead of us," says Williams, but nothing insurmountable for a man who has wanted a career in the movies ever since he was a kid – the youngest of six boys and one girl. After graduating from McCorristin High School and LaSalle University (Class of 1990) and earning an MBA at Tulane, Williams followed his heart into a five-month graduate film program at NYU. Balancing day jobs with whatever came along in the film industry, he managed to land production jobs with the makers of I.Q, A Beautiful Mind, Jersey Girl, all filmed in central New Jersey, and Signs, filmed in Bucks County.
He also has produced his own independent films and is working on several documentaries, including one on the Twin Rivers planned community in conjunction with Princeton professor Suzanne Keller, and another one on a Trenton-based Celtic pub band called Na Bodach.
In addition Williams has five years of festival experience working at the Independent Feature Project’s annual Film Market event to take charge of "a small army of volunteers and staff," shouldering the brunt of the planning and scheduling for the Film Society and the festival. Now a married man (his wife, Tamara, commutes to New York for her job in fashion design), Williams has reached that enviable position – the Trenton Film Festival work is his day job.
Early on Williams and the rest of the planners had to set some goals. "We asked ourselves, ‘What is actually achievable the first year out?’" says Williams. The board members began working out the logistics of pulling together the largest film event the area has ever seen.
TFS board members canvassed the Trenton landscape in search of venues large enough to handle a festival crowd. They found three: the New Jersey State Museum, the Trenton Marriott, and the Mill Hill Playhouse, all conveniently within walking distance of one another. "At a very slow walk," says Williams, one can make it from venue to venue in under 20 minutes. "You get a tour of Trenton. You get to walk past the Barracks and the Statehouse. You get to see these magnificent buildings."
Word spread. Businesses tapped for resources included the Trenton Thunder, the Trenton Downtowner, Upstage Magazine, and Comcast. At one point, the Film Society was approached by the Red Bank International Film Festival, which had heard the rumblings from across the state. According to Williams, Red Bank offered to make Trenton a satellite event, highlighting the best of their festival. "We told them it was a generous offer," says Williams, "but as the capital of the state, Trenton deserves its own festival."
Next came the job of notifying filmmakers across the country. "A lot of it was personal relationships to get the word out," says Williams. Board members requested submissions through word of mouth and posted advertisements on film websites. "We were expecting about 100 films" to be submitted for consideration, Williams says. It was a modest goal for a first-year festival. "It turned out we got over 200."
From November of last year through this February, a jury of film educators, professionals in the industry, directors, writers, and cinematographers set about the daunting task of sifting through the stacks of entries from all over the world. "We got submissions from places like Italy, Ireland, Greece, Hungary, Germany, India, Palestine," says Williams.
"There are a lot of festivals where only one person looks at a film," an unfortunate practice that, according to Williams, "doesn’t give the filmmakers a fair shake." In Trenton, each submitted film was reviewed by at least three jury members. The films were graded on both qualitative and quantitative scales. Jury members used a scoring system to assess each film’s technical aspects and also included their own personal comments on each entry.
Just under half of the submitted films made it through the first round of cuts. Jury members then whittled the remaining films down to the 11 features and 40 shorts that will screen in competition this weekend. An additional 20 short films were selected to screen at a "free taste of the Trenton Film Festival," as part of the Trenton Downtown Association’s monthly First Friday festival.
But Williams and the other board members were not satisfied with their program. They reached out to film distributors to obtain several other films, including family shows (such as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") and Academy Award-nominated shorts, including this year’s winning animated short, "Harvey Krumpet."
"People really like Oscar," says Williams, "but how many of us ever get to see the documentary shorts, let alone the winning animated short?" In fact, the Trenton Film Society has a long history with Oscar. One of its first screenings was of two short Oscar-nominated documentaries, and a fundraising event called the Silver Screen Soiree this past February centered on the Academy Awards broadcast.
Several additional foreign productions were also sought by the festival to round out the international program. "We made an effort to get films that no one in this area would normally see," says Williams. "The worst thing for a festival is for people to see films they could see anywhere."
One of the foreign films, the Icelandic "Noi Albinoi," has a reputation as a festival favorite, but Williams recognizes the difficulty filmmakers can have finding distribution outside of a major metropolitan area. Having worked on a number of large New Jersey-based film productions, such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "Jersey Girl," in addition to writing and directing his own independent films and documentaries, Williams finds himself in a position not just to empathize with filmmakers, but to lend a hand as well. "Knowing the struggles filmmakers go through, I wanted to help," he says.
"There are definitely some filmmakers we’re going to be hearing about in a few years," Williams says. "What these guys did with just a little money is insane, it’s just so good."
This independent spirit is part of what led the Festival to name the awards for the late Trenton-born entertainer Ernie Kovacs. "Ernie was probably the most successful Trentonian in the business," says Williams of the performer whose visionary television work afforded him the opportunity to work alongside such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, and Alec Guinness. The Guinness-Kovacs film "Our Man in Havana" will be a part of the festival program, as will an Ernie Kovacs retrospective hosted by Dennis Hedlund of Kultur Video, the official distributor of Kovacs’ programs.
"Ernie was the real deal," says Williams. "What he did is what independent filmmakers have to do: put everything you have into it." Kovacs was known to go "dumpster-diving" for props and sets along with his wife, Edie Adams. According to Williams, Ms. Adams was "completely tickled" when the Film Society asked to name their awards for her late husband (who died in a car accident in Beverly Hills in 1962).
"He never forgot where he came from," says Williams, noting Kovacs’ habit of referencing Trenton in his shows. "We wanted to find a way with this festival to honor the past." Choosing to pay tribute to Kovacs "said a lot about Trenton, but it also says something about the people."
"Trenton has a bad reputation, and it’s really not true," says Williams. "Cities are great and vital. They have an energy to them."
Many of the filmmakers whose work is on display in the festival will have a chance to experience that energy firsthand. Williams says that festival attendees can expect to see more than one director posting fliers around Trenton. "A great portion of the filmmakers are coming in to support their films," says Williams, "three from California alone." The emphasis TFS places on community and communication is reflected in their mission statement to "bring audiences and filmmakers together."
"We want people to talk about the films at the Trenton Film Festival," says Williams. Festivals remain major events for filmmakers eager to have their work seen, even with the advent of new technologies like portable DVD players and online streaming, largely because of this community aspect. "People love talking about films as much as seeing them," says Williams.
"As a filmmaker, you want a packed house," says Williams "and we want to put on a great show for them. You really need to treat these people right, let them know you’re going to work for them."
The festival has provided the visiting filmmakers, many of whom have never been to Trenton, with informational packets on things to do in and around the city. Says Williams: "While we have these people in town, it’s a great chance to show off Mercer County."
Williams says, "Even though we’re the Trenton Film Festival, we’re for the whole area, not just Trenton." In fact, one of the Film Society’s goals is to eventually expand into the greater Trenton area, opening up the opportunity to show new and unique films to a broader audience. Also on the Film Society’s slate are plans to take over a building in Trenton and convert it into an art house theater, making it the city’s first.
"You mention ‘film festival’ and people think Sundance or Cannes," says Williams. "They don’t think that can happen here." This weekend, Kevin Williams and the Trenton Film Society aim to make people think again.
Editor’s note: Christopher Zinsli is also an independent filmmaker whose short film "Commands" was included in the Films of the Trenton Film Society event in January. He has previously written about the Trenton Film Society for U.S. 1. Information about TFS and the Trenton Film Festival can be found at www.trentonfilmfestival.com.
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