History – Several individuals in the Williamsport community were requesting that the new Cinema Center movie theater show more “art films” in November 2008. Also, during that time that the 2008 Governor’s Arts Awards were held at the Community Arts Center. Despite the cold weather, the event was well attended. Jason Fink of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce reported that all hotel rooms were booked the night of the event. And an “after the Awards Party” was held in the Genetti Hotel’s Forth Street Grille at $20 per person. The room was packed solid with people, the hotel staff had to remove the furniture to accommodate everyone. Outside, Fourth Street was closed to traffic and heated tents were set up for artists and artisans to display their work.
Impressed with the large turnout, Richard James began to lobby for a film festival in Williamsport in February 2009. He created the “Billtown Film Festival page” on
Facebook.com Over one hundred people followed his postings on the social networking page. In March 2009,Mr. James was featured in an article in the Williamsport Sun Gazette’s entertainment section (Showcase), written by Jaime Zublick.
To generate interest, Richard James handed out leaflets and wrote brief commentaries about films shown at the Cinema Center, The CAC and the J.V. Brown Library on the Facebook site. He formed an alliance with the Williamsport Screen Artist Guild headed by John Yogodzinski. The WSAG’s purpose was to identify filmmakers and videographers in the area and act as a networking and educational organization.
In March 2009, Mr. James asked Rob Steele, Executive Director of the Community Arts Center to reserve 3 days for the BFF in April 2010. Mr. Steele immediately booked the dates on his calendar with a caveat; there was a possibility of getting “bumped”. The dates, April 22, 23 and 24, were not guaranteed.
Richard James continued to operate the Facebook bulletin board and designed a website at www.rcjamesdesign.net/billtown_film/festival.html. Mr. James also wrote several articles detailing his progress in the Williamsport Guardian, a bimonthly newspaper.
In the newspaper articles, Mr. James explained why he picked the third weekend in April to hold the film festival. The determining factors included the onset of spring weather, sufficient time to organize, research and plan the event and a proposal to include a theme of environmental protection. (Earth Day is April 22nd.) Mr. James conceived the idea of the ScreenGreen™ concept. Mr. James reckoned that concerns about the environment and natural gas drilling would become very important in the near future. He also surmised that the film festival needed an identity to distinguish itself from the hundreds of other film festivals around the United States.
On June 1, 2009, Richard James circulated an informal survey. Respondents were asked to send back their answers by June 15, 2009. Twenty-nine respondents (of an estimated 200 queried) complied by the deadline. The response rate was 14.5%. While the respondents had no experience in producing a film festival, about half said that they were willing to volunteer their services. All said that a film festival in Williamsport was a good idea.
In addition to Rob Steele, Mr. James met with Mayor Gabe Campana, Jason Fink, Vice-President of the Chamber of Commerce and Rhonda Taggart, Board Chair of Our Towns 2010. Mr. James also interviewed, via telephone, other film festival organizers in Pennsylvania. Todd Shill of the Harrisburg Film Festival was particularly helpful. Mr. Shill said that the HFF has been operating for more than 12 years and brings an estimated 5,000 people to the city.
By December 2009, interest in the project was waning. Mr. James contacted Ms. Leah Peterson for help. Ms. Peterson brought on board her colleague, Lynn Estomin. It was through Ms. Estomin’s contacts that a film festival started to take shape. It was determined that the first annual BFF would consist of two nights instead of three. Thursday night (April 22, 2009) would be comprised of the Lycoming College students’ work and on Friday night, (April 23, 2009) the theme would be “Local Women in Film”.
Extensive advertising for the event, completed at minimal costs, included electronic billboards, posters and flyers, newspaper articles and display ads and a talk show interview on WRAK am radio. Mr. James also redesigned the Billtown Film Festival website to include program information. (www.rcjamesdesign.net/billtown_filmfest.html)
The attendance for the first night was about 100 people (significantly higher than the student screening the previous year). The second night yielded about 80 people. While Richard James was disappointed at such a meager turnout, others thought the endeavor was quite successful.
During Mr. James’ research of film festivals and independent filmmakers, someone alerted him to the independent film, “Gasland” by Josh Fox, a Northeast Pennsylvanian. The film’s unflattering look at the natural gas drilling industry won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival 2010. On March 12, 2010, Mr. James contacted Mr. Fox’s organization and asked him to visit the Billtown Film Festival. Josh Fox and his movie Gasland, did come to Williamsport on May 11, 2010, it was not a BFF sponsored event. The film was sponsored by a local environmental group. According to CAC Manager Lara Breon, the film broke the CAC’s movie attendance record at 1,612!
Richard James and the Billtown Film Festival Executive Committee were encouraged by the huge turnout for an independent film. They pushed forward to bring more independent fils to Williamsport.
The Second Annual Billtown Film Festival saw the expansion to a 3-night program in April 2011. The theme for the festival, Fresh Air, Clean Water and Good Food, was designed to focus the audience’s attention to environmental issues. With interest in Hydraulic Fracturing sweeping Central Pennsylvania, BFF wanted to remind people how truly valuable are our pristine lakes and streams, our crystal clear air and our rich farm lands.
The third year’s theme saw the merging of 3 separate topics, Art, Women and the Environment in April 2012. As part of BFF3’s programming, the traveling 2011-2012 film collection Lunafest was screened to raise funds for the YWCA of Northcentral Pa and for the Breast Cancer Fund. The second night of the festival included the work of local filmmaker, and executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Film Office, Lorena Beniquez. Her film about art appreciation in downtown Williamsport, stART, brought many new faces to the festival.
Handouts and posters like the one above used images of female art forms that would be familiar to Williamsport natives. The Brandon Park Garden is enclosed within the silhouette of the old courthouse weather vane – Lady Justice, and Two Sisters a sculpture by John Kohr (directly across the street from the Community Arts Center), and Ruth by Giovanni Ciniselli. The marble statue of the biblical Ruth is in the James V. Brown Library.