Diane Raver was living in the south of France when she and her husband, award-winning cinematographer M. Carroll Raver, went to Cannes for some coffee.
“We looked at the amphitheater and thought, film festivals — there’s an idea,” Raver said.
So, when she and her family returned to the Jersey Shore and she happened to encounter well-known Hollywood actor and friend Robert Pastorelli in a Sea Girt grocery store, she asked him about it.
“I said, ‘How come there isn’t an all-encompassing film event in the state of New Jersey? After all, it is the birthplace of the film industry,’” she said.
Raver would know. She spent 25 years working her way up in the film and television industry, from sales representative to executive producer to the first woman president and founder of The Madison Group, a commercial production company in New York City.
New Jersey is, in fact, the birthplace of the American filmmaking industry, from Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratories where he invented the first film cameras and projectors, to Fort Lee, where the original studios were founded.
“So, I said to Robert, ‘Why don’t we start a film festival?’
“Little did I know that, when it jumped out of my mouth, that it would consume my life for the last 16 years.”
The 15th annual Garden State Film Festival, New Jersey’s premier independent film festival, will take place from March 30 through April 2 this year at Resorts Hotel and Casino, Stockton University and the Arts Garage in Atlantic City.
More than 215 films from 24 countries will be showcased, including those created by filmmakers, actors, writers and production teams from New Jersey.
“This is like coordinating the Macy’s Day parade four days in a row,” Raver said.
Since the Garden State Film Festival began in 2003, industry notables such as Ed Asner, Glenn Close, Michael Uslan, Bruce Springsteen, Laura Dern and Bebe Neuwirth have all lent their support to the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
So has Margaret Fontana, digital innovation officer for Hackensack Meridian Health.
Fontana met Raver at work seven years ago.
“There was this woman walking through the halls talking about the festival and meeting with our head marketing people,” Fontana said. “I was intrigued to know what it was all about.”
As a past producer and writer for television shows such as “Rainbow Connection” and “Greatest Inventions with Bill Nye,” Fontana was encouraged to volunteer. Shortly after she did so, she then was invited to be on the board.
This will now be her second film festival as executive director.
“This is my passion project and I receive lots of support from Hackensack Meridian Health,” Fontana said.
Though the festival is largely funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, as well as heavily supported by the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission and the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, business sponsorship is critical.
Companies of all sizes, from Justin’s Barbershop in Ocean and Monmouth County to Mercedes-Benz, sponsor and partner with the film festival to not only promote the arts but also strengthen the economy and promote commerce.
“When we invite businesses to be media sponsors, there also are different topics that might relate to different organizations on different levels,” Fontana said. “Aside from being a highly visible event, that is something that they cannot get for their marketing dollars any other way.”
For example, films range from short fictions such as “She Entered the Void,” directed by Communications High School student Kierin Rogers, about anxiety and depression in young adulthood, to “The Lavender Scare,” a feature documentary about the tens of thousands of men and women who were fired from their jobs in a decades-long effort to rid the U.S. government of homosexuals.
“What I am most proud of is that we are really on the front lines of freedom of speech and expression in this country,” Raver said. “We show all sides of every topic, and we are very proud of the content and the spotlight that we shine on issues that may not always be considered politically correct.”
The event also provides novice and aspiring filmmakers, actors and others interested in careers in the film business the opportunity to meet and network with industry professionals in an atmosphere conducive to learning and mentoring.
“We bring the best of the film industry to our state once a year,” Raver said. “And, we are an annual event in which people in this business meet up with others to do business.
“So many deals are made at our event.”
Formerly held in Asbury Park, the prestigious event is now held in Atlantic City.
“We now have an amazing infrastructure in which to work with in Atlantic City to be able to invite larger crowds,” Fontana said. “And we bring in at least $800,000 the local economy in terms of people needing hotel rooms, eating at restaurants, renting cars and so forth.”
Last year, more than 25,000 people attended the four-day festival.
Raver hopes the Garden State Film Festival can help to educate others in the state about how lucrative and important the film and television industry is — and why the tax credit should be reinstated.
“With every film shoot that comes to New Jersey, I mean, at the basic level, hardware and lumber is purchased,” Raver said. “It is such a cash cow that why this industry is not more robustly supported in this state is a mystery to me. The return on each dollar is a proven fact.”
Additionally, the Garden State Film Festival provides a wide range of outreach and educational programs throughout the year.
“We also want to provide hands-on training,” Raver said. “It is our goal to be able to one day have a brick-and-mortar film center in which to introduce our youth to the industry.”
For more information on the Garden State Film Festival, click here.