Downtown Williamsport's art scene is a bit like an angsty teenager; it doesn't look like much at first glance, keeps to itself most of the time and occasionally gets mixed up with the wrong crowd. But get to know it a little bit and you find an arts scene bursting with potential.
It just needs some ... direction. Look past the trendy "Kohl's" t-shirt and the bad movie posters, and you'll find blocks filled with fantastic Italian, Thai and Mexican restaurants, a real-live independent bookstore, two theaters, a coffee shop that will brew your cup right in front of you and a brewery and restaurant whose handcrafted beers are brewing while you eat and listen to music - music often played by live musicians. And all of these places are owned by local families who care not only about you, but what it is that they give you.
In 2008, that was noticed by people outside of the area and Williamsport received the Governor's Arts Award, which recognizes "Pennsylvanians who [contribute] their creative talents to their communities." Williamsport's Richard James said it was the Governor's Arts Awards that inspired the first Billtown Film Festival. Seeing "downtown come alive on a cold and dreary Winter evening" encouraged him to try to "duplicate that vitality on an annual basis," he said.
That vitality may be faltering, however; what started with a surprising amount of enthusiasm and support may fizzle out if we're not careful.
"Many people are encouraging me to continue, but the attendance numbers don't lie," James conceded, adding "Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but I like to dream big."
Dreaming or not, James has been able to procure the rights this year to show films like Emmy and Sundance award-winning director Lee Hirsch's "Bully," and Shelley Hermon's "Within the Eye of the Storm" - films that have received national and international recognition, respectively, and may not be screened in the area otherwise. James isn't only interested in exposing Williamsport to films from outside the area, however, and has designed the festival's schedule with spots for local filmmakers from the beginning.
Beginnings, he said, that might not have gone very far without the help of a few key people.
"Lynn Estomin and Leah Peterson (both of Lycoming College) were instrumental in making 'BFF1' a reality that first year," he said.
Even if the area is unfortunate enough to lose James' festival, he expresses only gratitude to community members like Estomin and Peterson, as well as people like "Rob (Steele, executive director of the Community Arts Center) and everyone at the CAC for their support and trust. That gratitude also extends to Pennsylvania College of Technology and the Williamsport-Lycoming Community Foundation, without whose help none of this would have been possible."
The festival also wouldn't be possible without the creativity and energy of local filmmakers like 19-year-old Phoebe Frear whose film "Remember to Forget Me" will play at the festival.
Frear currently studies film production and screenplay writing at college, and said that it was meeting another Williamsport native that changed her life. When Tom Woodruff Jr. (known for producing special effects for films like "Aliens" and "The Terminator") came back to Williamsport to lecture on film, Frear says it "was the moment I knew without a doubt what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
When she attended a camp in 2011 on the basics of filmmaking, she and her brother Jamin's small group walked away with first prize.
"Remember to Forget Me" tackles the very dark subjects of modern slavery and human trafficking. The film started as a collaboration with another young writer and filmmaker, Tricia Lou, and was intended for Lou's senior project at school. When the girls realized they could potentially finish in time to enter the film in this year's festival, they set their sights on an earlier finish date. Frear's intentions are remarkably focused for a 19-year-old.
"My passion is filmmaking; I want to use my passion to help people in any way I can," she said.
Frear's film will play alongside other amateur filmmakers' work, like Thomas Fleming's "Roulette," William Covert Jr.'s "Just Cancer," in which the director's father documented his own decline from the disease, and Jeff Clark's "Threat Prep," a humorous story of an aging survivalist instructing a younger generation.
The fourth Billtown Film Festival will be held from Sunday through Tuesday at the Williamsport Comm-unity Arts Center, 220 W. Fourth St. Doors open at 7 p.m., the films begin at 7:30 p.m., and end at approximately 9:30 p.m. Admission is free. Find the Community Arts Center online at www.caclive.com or call 326-2424 for more information.
The best way to show support, however, is by simply showing up.