New Hope, the colorful arts colony on the Delaware has always played by its own rules. A longtime mecca for tourists, theater lovers, bikers, and anyone else drawn to its all-inclusive bohemian vibe, it is home to an annual film festival so popular that a record 591 entries were submitted during the 2015-’16 season alone. The event, running July 22 through 31 at two venues, is growing so popular that the Huffington Post christened it an “emerging Sundance East” in 2012.
Douglas F. Whipple, a longtime New Hope-area resident who founded the festival, now in its seventh year, has a winning strategy that seems to be working. An author, screenwriter, blogger, and former child actor, he has a small band of judges culled from friends and arts professionals in the New Hope and Los Angeles areas to serve as judges every year. They follow demanding and highly professional standards that translate into a “no preferential treatment rule.”
And Whipple, who admits to being something of glutton for punishment when it comes to working hard and being engulfed by the sheer volume of festival entries, willingly dives in, head first, to sample every single movie or screenplay submitted before sharing the task with his fellow judges. “A third of the films don’t make it past me.”
“That’s how we were able to get the number of competing films down to 106 from 591,’’ says publicity chair and judge Marianne Speiser. The official selections include 89 films from 11 countries and 17 scripts, many being U.S. and world premieres. Internationally, Italy, Canada, Turkey, India, Australia, Switzerland, Ukraine, the U.K., Kuwait, and Brazil join the U.S. in the competition.
“The art must shine through,” Whipple says of submitted entries. “That’s what matters most.”
Each film will unreel in either of two New Hope locations — the New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, or the Stephen J. Buck Memorial Theater at New Hope-Solebury High School, 180 West Bridge Street. Advance ticket reservations are the best way to assure a seat. Visit www.newhopefilmfestival.com.
On the festival’s home page, the official 2016 program guide includes the festival schedule, descriptions of each film, select film trailers, and “tips” about the event by clicking on News. The festival’s Facebook and Twitter pages offer timely updates on what’s happening and when.
There are films about long-time unemployed older workers (“My Fight at 50”); a documentary on the bizarre case of a man determined to commit suicide in San Francisco Bay (“Shallow Waters: The Public Death of Raymond Zack”); a chiller about a haunted farmhouse (“Apparition”); a drama about a young Indian woman who has an arranged marriage with an American (“Blood and Curry”); and a short documentary on famed New Hope woodworker George Nakashima (“The Soul of a Tree.”)
Whipple sees no reason to mess with success. With his contingent of judges, question and answer sessions with filmmakers, and film professionals who attend the screenings as devotees of the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) sanctioned event, there is an air of prestige attached. That alone sets it apart from the crop of film fests popping up.
The judges bring their own entertainment backgrounds to the table. Along with Speiser, who says she “was there from the start,” judges include Southern California-based Thom Michael Milligan, an award-winning independent film producer and actor who oversees the festival selection process as executive director of submissions; New Hope photographer Danny Sailor, who is director of submissions; and Hollywood screenwriter Mark Rosenthal (“Jewel of the Nile,” “Planet of the Apes”) who serves as an ongoing advisor.
“They’ve all been there from the beginning,” says Whipple, who explains that the process of running a film festival stretches from August until the end of February. He has watched the changes, which include the explosion of digital media and independent film. It’s also enabled the judging group to keep in touch with submissions across the miles without having to gather for screenings.
“Films are our passion,” Whipple says of his judges. “We all got in on the ground floor, and we could finish each other’s sentences. We each see every film.”
Whipple provides first eyes on the entries and says he has become so accustomed to his judges’ tastes over the years that he can almost predict what they will like. In confidence, he mentions a few favorites of his own, relishing the memory of each. He mentions a few that went on to find distribution, if not overnight acclaim, and notes that New Hope itself remains part of the festival’s allure.
The history and the charm are part of the Delaware River town’s draw. The name itself — New Hope — is attractive to new filmmakers, Whipple suggests. Some filmmakers have ties to the area just as he does.
The son of a mother who still works in realty and a father who worked for Johnson & Johnson and as a medical supplier whose job kept the family on the move, Whipple grew up in New York and Pennsylvania (his high school years). His interest in acting led to a unique assignment.
“When I was 10 or 11, I was a child actor in an educational film called ‘The Big Yellow Fellow.’ It was the highest grossing educational film in American history,” he says.
He took classes in New York and was told, “You can act.” But that evaluation put a crimp in his desire to tour the Pacific Rim and see Hong Kong and Singapore. He worked on Wall Street instead for 10 years.
“I ended up writing a novel and a screenplay and met Thom Milligan. I do love acting, but that requires total commitment. My real love is on the acting side.”
He cites “Out of Africa” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” as two of his favorites, reasoning, “anything away from here and now.”
Whipple also mentions an aspect of the New Hope Film Festival that gives attendees a say in who wins recognition with the Audience Choice Award. Ballots are handed out so that audiences can vote on their favorite films, make a suggestion to a director and, in general, get their opinions heard.
On Sunday, July 31, the film festival will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who is sending a video acceptance and is the subject of “Courage Under Fire,” a documentary being shown during the event.
The local focus of L.A.-based writer-director-editor Mari Walker’s “The Soul of a Tree” is expected to be one of the festival highlights. Using actual news footage and family photos, it focuses on George Nakashima and the three years he and his family spent at the Minidoka Internment Camp near Eden, Idaho. The film draws its title from the artisan’s 1981 book of the same name and examines his transition from architect to artist. It will be shown Saturday, July 23.
Parking is available at New Hope parking lots and at metered on-street parking. For more information, consult the program guide online at the New Hope Film Festival website.
New Hope Film Festival, with screenings at New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, or the Stephen J. Buck Memorial Theater at New Hope-Solebury High School, 180 West Bridge Street, New Hope. Friday, July 22, through Sunday, July 31. $8 to $12 per viewing. Standby pass for all non-sold out events $35. Awards ceremony by invitation only. 800-838-3006 or www.newhopefilmfestival.com.