NEPA Scene Staff

VIDEO: Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival 2019 lineup and guests announced at Ritz Theater in Scranton

VIDEO: Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival 2019 lineup and guests announced at Ritz Theater in Scranton
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From a press release:

In a press conference held at The Ritz Theater in downtown Scranton this morning, the Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival announced its official program selections for this year’s festival, slated for Friday, March 22 through Sunday, March 24 in a variety of venues throughout downtown Scranton and the Waverly Community House.

Presented by the Waverly Community House and supported by the F. Lammot Belin Arts Foundation, the 2019 NEPA Film Festival will screen more than 50 films, including features, horror and animated shorts, documentaries, and international films, along with an opening night gala, artist tributes, presentations and panel discussions, and the ever-popular Mystery Box Challenge. Guests, many with local connections, will include “I Heard You Paint Houses” author Charles Brandt, producers Robert May and Lisa Marie Stetler, “The Pretender” documentary subject Mike Kunda, filmmaker Chris Fetchko, and casting director Mia Cusumano.

Dedicated to nurturing emerging and independent filmmakers from Northeast Pennsylvania and around the world, the three-day festival correspondingly promotes cultural awareness and appreciation of film as an art form by exposing local audiences to unique and original cinema. Now in its third year, the festival’s growing reputation is built on a commitment to offer the region access to new and independently produced films by a wide range of emerging and established filmmakers.

Producer Robert May will be honored with the F. Lammot Belin Award for Excellence in Cinema at the festival’s kickoff gala, slated for Friday, March 22 at 7 p.m. at the Waverly Community House (1115 N. Abington Rd., Waverly).

May, originally from Dallas, Pennsylvania, founded SenArt Films in 2000 with a focus on character-driven films. He has produced seven feature films to date, which have collectively garnered over 40 awards, including the Oscar, BAFTA, Independent Spirit Award, and Human Rights Award.

May’s films include “The Station Agent,” directed by then first-time director Tom McCarthy and starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale; “The Fog of War” (Errol Morris), “Stevie” (Steve James); “The War Tapes” (Deborah Scranton); and “Bonnevile” (Chris Rowley).

May’s directorial debut, “Kids for Cash,” a film about greed, corruption, and kids in Luzerne County, earned the coveted New York Times Critic’s Pick and went on to garner notable critic reviews. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety call the film “shocking, continually surprising” and “riveting! A real-life thriller that rivals most dramatic fiction.” May’s latest project, “Lust for Gold: A Race Against Time” (currently in post-production), follows five men and a dog as they travel deep within Superstition Mountain in Arizona in search of buried treasure.

During the opening night gala, an encore presentation of May’s “The Station Agent” will ­be screened. May will introduce the film and host a post-screening audience Q&A.

In addition to May’s award presentation, Waverly native and Abington Heights graduate Lisa Marie Stetler, the force behind the animated film “Ferdinand,” will receive the festival’s Vision Award during the festival’s opening-night festivities.

“I read the book and I immediately saw it as a movie,” Stetler says of the popular 1936 children’s classic “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf. Not one to take no for an answer, Stetler pitched her idea to turn the beloved tale of a gentle bull who loved to smell the flowers into a movie to countless industry execs until 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios signed on, releasing the animated film in 2017 with Stetler serving as producer.

Stetler’s vigilant crusade to bring Ferdinand’s anti-bullying message to the big screen has certainly paid off. Not only was it a global box office smash, it was nominated for a host of awards including Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. “I knew I was supposed to do this,” Stetler says.

In addition to accepting the Vision Award at Friday’s gala, Stetler will also lead a panel brunch discussion Saturday morning at Posh restaurant in downtown Scranton, “Pitch, Fund, Cast,” that will include Mountain Top filmmaker Chris Fetchko and New York City casting director Mia Cusumano.

Fetchko (director, writer, and producer) is prepping for his fourth feature film project, “Blinded by Ed,” a dark romantic comedy, and a fifth feature film project, “Island People,” his first foray into the horror genre. Following up the indie festival darling “All in Time,” which won numerous awards, including Best Director at the Milan International Film Festival, and will be screened Saturday, March 23 at this year’s festival, Fetchko is excited to “get back on set” again.

Fetchko began his film career by co-writing and producing “Everything’s Jake,” starring Ernie Hudson, Debbie Allen, and Phyllis Diller. He then went on to produce “Eavesdrop” with Wendie Malick, Ted McGinley, and Anna Chlumsky

Cusamano, formerly of Old Forge, recently worked on the 2018 comedy “Lez Bomb” and the forthcoming Hulu series based on the stand-up comedy of Ramy Youssef, due out this March.

“Pitch, Fund, Cast” will be held Saturday, March 23 at 10:30 a.m. at Posh at the Scranton Club (404 N Washington Ave, Scranton). $25 advance tickets includes brunch.

Another major headliner of this year’s festival lineup is author Charles Brandt, who will share insight on his biography being made into 2019’s most anticipated film, “The Irishman,” by Martin Scorsese. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel are just some of the names involved in “The Irishman,” an adaptation of Brandt’s acclaimed book, “I Heard You Paint Houses.”

In the course of nearly five years of interviews, Frank Sheeran (played in the upcoming film by Robert De Niro) confessed to Brandt that he conducted more than 25 hits for the mob, including NEPA’s own legendary don, Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci) who, according to Sheeran, is said to have ordered the demise of Jimmy Hoffa.

Brandt’s presentation, “When Scorsese Calls,” will be held in the private event space at the Bittenbender Building (126-132 Franklin Ave., Scranton) on Saturday, March 23 at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 in advance, and books will be available to purchase for Brandt to sign. Seating is limited for this event.

“When we had script meetings, it was Scorsese, De Niro, [scriptwriter] Steve Zaillian, and me in the room. It was like winning the lottery,” Brandt says. “I sat there with these men as part of a very important and historic project. It was awe-inspiring and humbling. They’re such geniuses and I don’t know their craft, but I know that the questions they asked me about the people involved showed a sensitivity and humanity that I was in awe of.”

Of the hundreds submitted for consideration, the film receiving top billing at this year’s festival is “The Pretender,” a documentary based on hometown hero Mike Kunda. For the past 40 years, the West Scranton native has dedicated his life to the “Rocky” film franchise and his fictional hero, Rocky Balboa.

“The Pretender,” an award-winning 2018 documentary, takes audiences inside Kunda’s life, revealing the origins of his fascination with the Rocky character and how it continues to shape his life. The 50-minute film, which gets its NEPA premiere at this year’s festival, tracks Kunda over a five-year period as he leaves his comfortable middle-class life behind to follow his dream of becoming a full-time Rocky Balboa impersonator.

“Mike’s journey,” says Detroit director Jim Toscano, “is an emotional trip through themes of obsession, passion, and inspiration. In the end, he shows us that even the most seemingly unrealistic goals can offer the most rewarding and fulfilling life of all. The story isn’t one so much about Rocky as it is about each of us discovering what truly drives and motivates us. I want people to see this film and truly be inspired to follow their own dreams, no matter how crazy or intimidating those dreams might be.”

“We are honored and excited to share Mike’s story with film fans in NEPA,” says filmmaker and editor Danny Gianino. “His love for life and being true to oneself is an inspiration to us, and we hope it inspires the audience, as well.”

Kunda and the filmmakers will introduce the film and answer audience questions after the primetime screening slated for Saturday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at The Ritz Theater (222 Wyoming Ave., Scranton).

Saturday’s film schedule will wrap up with a 9 p.m. showing of “All in Time” by Chris Fetchko. The film received 12 awards on the film festival circuit, including a Best Director nod for Fetchko and co-director Marina Donahue at the Milan International Film Festival.

Shot almost entirely in NEPA, the dramatic comedy follows main character Charlie as he leaves a secure job in New York City to manage his favorite band in his home region of Pennsylvania. Conflict arises when Charlie must learn to balance band tensions and his relationship with his girlfriend.

Fetchko, a West Hazelton native who loosely based the script on his own adventures as band manager of The Badlees, describes the film as “autobiographical but fictionalized” with “lots of twists and turns.” Fetchko will introduce the film and host an audience Q&A after.

On Sunday, March 23, the PNC Auditorium in the Loyola Science Center at the University of Scranton (800 Linden St., Scranton) will play host to all films and events. A panel discussion and the Mystery Box Challenge will round out the final day’s events with a block of films by local filmmakers closing this year’s NEPA Film Festival.

VIA Global Studios, the production arm of WVIA-TV, will offer a free panel discussion on “The Digital Age of Filmmaking 2.0.” Geared toward filmmakers and independent producers, the VIA team will share professional insights on the future of filmmaking at 3 p.m. at the PNC Auditorium.

The Mystery Box Challenge, an audience favorite, is also slated for Sunday afternoon. Back in September 2018, participating teams received a cardboard box filled with objects that had to be incorporated into a short film. Each Mystery Box contained an assortment of plot devices, ranging from character names, a line of dialogue, a prop, a type of location, a plot element, or a wardrobe item. Filmmakers had three months to write a script, cast, shoot, and edit their short films based on those items. The finished products will be revealed Sunday at 4 p.m. at the PNC Auditorium.

The NEPA Film Festival will conclude Sunday, March 23rd with a celebration and special screening of films by regional filmmakers, including Lindsey Barrasse, Liz Naro, Jack Coleman, Ed Wasser, and Luz Cabrales.

A limited number of all-access film festival passes are available for $125 in advance and include admission to the opening night gala, the “Pitch, Fund, Cast” kickoff brunch, the Charles Brandt presentation “When Scorsese Calls,” as well as all films and other events. For more information or to purchase all-access passes, individual tickets, or day passes, visit nepafilmfestival.com.

Established in 2016 by the Waverly Community House and supported by the F. Lammot Belin Arts Foundation, the third annual Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival, a project of Scranton Tomorrow, is sponsored by the Lackawanna County Council of the Arts, WVIA Public Media, the People’s Security Bank and Trust, and ATR Properties.

Watch the entire press conference live stream below:

Photo by Rich Howells/NEPA Scene