At its start, the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival aimed to keep all of the fests screenings within the cozy confines of Northern Liberties.
For the first three years, the festival’s organizers largely stuck to that formula, with non-traditional venues like Woodshop Films, North Bowl Lounge ’N’ Lanes and the recently closed Arbol Cafe holding screenings for audiences of various sizes.
This year, however, for their fourth installment they decided it was time to break that pattern after they got wind of a potentially huge partner, one they knew they could not pass up: the Franklin Institute.
“They are world-premiering Cars 2 at the same time, so it’s us and Disney,” said the festival’s director, Ben Barnett with a laugh. “It’s really exciting.”
“It’s interesting because there is a perception out there of what the [Franklin Institute] is, as there is with all these institutions, but they are all trying to attract younger, diverse crowds,” Barnett explained. “Running a festival like this through one of the best screens in the city is fantastic.”
One of the things Barnett and his fellow organizers aimed to do was book each PIFF venue with distinct content so people attending would know whether they wanted to see a film or not.
“Last year, we started an animation festival within the festival and it was huge,” Barnett explained.
“We got to look at the venues and see how they work toward promoting the films. If they liked it, people got to know if they went to a certain venue, they would see a certain kind of film.”
This year, they decided to expand on that notion.
For instance, another new venue is the Raven Lounge in Center City, a venue with a comedy bent.
“We wanted to focus more on comedies this year so we are screening all of our comedies at the Raven,” said Barnett.
“We are also having an amateur open mike for comedians after the screenings, so if you like comedy, go to the Raven.”
While the organizers have their own ideas about how they would fill the schedule, most times they have to go with whatever is the best content submitted.
“One thing we get is a lot of people trying to make narrative drama,” explained Barnett. “Getting amateur actors and first-time actors to do drama is really difficult. The irony is that all the first-time dramas that don’t work, they all look alike. That’s the director’s fault and it shows.”
So when the festival’s decision-makers saw Close-Up, a film written and directed by Philly’s Jose Cruz Jr. and largely cast with local talent, they knew they had to screen the film.
“This story is a real redemption story. It provoked a real dialogue about making movies — about the story itself — which, to me, was perfect for a film festival,” Barnett said.
The film follows a once-aspiring actor who is fighting a drug addiction and other outside influences while trying to find his place in the world.
“The reason I came up with Close-Up was, I shot this short film for my senior thesis which won Best Dramatic Short Film at the New York International Film and Video Festival,” said Cruz.
“That got me a manager and meetings in Hollywood.”
As Cruz explained, though, the limelight quickly shifted off of him and he could not get the attention needed to get a start out west.
“I was at a point where I was really depressed,” he explained. “I decided to write something small that I could fund myself. I took bits and pieces from people I know. Anyone that’s a starving artist deals with a lot of downfalls.”
It was about the time that he was writing this that he got an e-mail from an old actor friend.
“A film we worked on together was being illegally downloaded, so I sent him an e-mail to check it out,” Bridesburg native Shaun Costello said of his reintroduction to Cruz. “He asked me what I was up to.”
The rest was a pretty quick process.
“Jose gave me the script and we basically had three weeks to prepare because we had to film on New Year’s Eve.”
To be more accurate, they had to film in New York City — in Times Square — on New Year’s Eve.
“We knew if we didn’t have that scene, we didn’t have a film,” noted Cruz. “Once that was in the can, we knew we had the film. We just had to shoot it.”
They were able to cut down on some of the pre-production work by deciding to film on new digital cameras, roughly the size of a football or smaller, as well as using much of the cast from another film Costello had just finished working on.
This cut down on a lot of the logistical and time-consuming issues that usually plague the start of a movie’s production schedule.
The film takes place in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and was filmed in just 12 non-consecutive days over the first few months of 2010.
“It wasn’t a lot of time, especially for a movie that was so emotional,” explained Costello, who went to St. John Cantius and Father Judge High School.
The film has already screened in both New York and Los Angeles, taking home the Audience Choice Award for Best Dramatic Feature at the Staten Island Film Festival.
The PIFF screening marks its hometown debut.
“This is kind of a testament to the Philadelphia spirit,” Costello said. “You don’t need celebrities and a big budget to make a good independent movie. You just need a bunch of talented, motivated people.” ••
Close-Up will screen at Media Bureau, 725 N. Fourth St. in Northern Liberties, on Thursday, June 23, at 6 p.m. The Philadelphia Independent Film Festival is taking place through Sunday. For full festival lineup visit http://philadelphiaindependentfilmfestival.com