Tom Bernard didn't just grow up a casual consumer of the Asbury Park arts scene. He was raised by it.
It doesn’t take much to get the co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics talking about a youth spent on the boardwalk, sneaking into the Paramount Theatre to watch films in junior high school and catching acts like The Beach Boys and The Doors in his teenage years.
“What played here during that time period was all the top art movies in New York — all the movies that would win stuff in Cannes, foreign-language stuff, British stuff,” Bernard said. “We used to come down here on our bicycles and go to the movies, and every now and then we’d sneak into one of those thinking there’d be something risque. But you know, we started to get a taste of this new kind of cinema.”
It’s been a while since Bernard has had to sneak into a film. In fact, with 169 Academy Award nominations and 39 wins under his belt, he’s found himself in the position to share culture with those who can’t afford it.
Bernard chairs the Asbury Park Music & Film Festival, a brainchild of Gannett NJ President and Publisher Tom Donovan with the purpose of raising money to put instruments in the hands of local kids. This year’s edition runs from April 27-29.
Donovan approached Bernard during the first year of the festival in 2015, desperate to help the kids but unsure of how to get people to come and raise the kind of money he was hoping for.
“He said, ‘What we’re finding is that the music has really changed the grades in the school. Kids stay after school to play music and it helps give them a dream, to give them hope. If the kids don’t make the grades, they don’t get to play. Do you want to be involved?’” recounted Bernard.
When Donovan asked him for help in constructing an executive board, Bernard invited Ocean County native and lauded entertainment photographer Danny Clinch to help. Together, the three fleshed out a board of directors deep with entertainment industry do-gooders: Adam Block, president of Sony Legacy Recordings; Vinnie Favale, a longtime CBS late-night exec now working in talent development at the network’s studio division; Jeff Rosen, sole manager to Bob Dylan; Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum; Submarine Entertainment Co-President Josh Braun; and former New Jersey Devils player Jim Dowd.
“We wanted to get people that were gonna do stuff instead of give money, so every one of those people could bring something to the festival,” Bernard said.
In the festival’s second year, Bernard’s first on the board, actor-director Don Cheadle screened his movie “Miles Ahead,” a Miles Davis biopic released under Bernard’s arm of Sony. The movie was followed by an hourlong musical performance and a Q&A session with Cheadle at the Hope Academy Charter School, one of three beneficiaries of the festival.
“I remember this one kid who shyly raised his hand, and Don gave him a lot of attention to make him feel comfortable. [The kid] said, ‘Listen, do you think that I could ever do something like what you did?’ Don welled up emotionally,” said Bernard. “He started to talk about his life and how he got to where he was. It gave that kid such hope. It was one of those amazing moments where you go, ‘Wow, this stuff really has an impact.’”
Along with the Hope Academy, the festival also benefits the Hip Hop Institute and Asbury Park Summer Recreation Music Camp. Over $300,000 has been donated to benefit music programming, education and the underserved youth of Asbury Park through the festival.
In 2015, RWJ Barnabas Health donated an undisclosed sum of money to allow the festival to go on for three more years. The Asbury Park Press donated advertising space and money, and through these donations and the addition of seven more board members, the festival continues to grow.
“Through the Asbury Park Music & Film Festival, we’ve successfully joined forces with other sponsors to leverage the unique attributes of this great Jersey Shore city to increase access to music and the arts for underserved children of Asbury Park,” said Bill Arnold, president and CEO of Monmouth Medical Center, part of RWJ Barnabas Health.
Other sponsors are showing up to align themselves with the festival’s mission — and the city-on-the-rise itself.
“If you want to brand, I don’t think you can find a better place to brand than this event if you’re from New Jersey,” explained Bernard. “It’s a charity event; it’s a place that celebrates New Jersey; it celebrates the town of Asbury, which has come back from the dead and is becoming a national news spot. This isn’t like a festival that people are grinding out for money. These [performers] come out and meet the kids. The kids showcase their talents with them on stage. It’s a different kind of scene.”
The festival is open for business, and interested companies big and small have plenty of opportunity to get involved. Corporations can sponsor a stage, or provide volunteers to assist throughout festival weekend. Car services and drivers can also help shuttle those traveling into town for the weekend.
“Anyone who wants to create a positive image for the new generation — people that are looking to brand their industry with something positive — this has got it,” Bernard said.
On top of sponsorships, attendance continues to rise, and Bernard has high hopes for this year’s turnout. World premiere films such as Michael Franti’s “Stay Human” (with a panel and performance featuring the Michael Franti & Spearhead lead) and Justin Kreutzmann’s “Break on Thru: A Celebration of Ray Manzarek and The Doors” (which will be accompanied by an appearance by Doors drummer John Densmore), as well as scheduled performances by Wyclef Jean, Sublime with Rome and Built to Spill, have helped drive ticket sales.
And in an event that’s nearly sold out, Asbury Park native Danny DeVito will take the stage at the Paramount Theatre for a career retrospective and Q&A session April 28.
Beyond 2018, Bernard plans on making the festival a national destination for years to come. The film festival veteran knows each year he’ll be at Cannes in mid-May and Toronto in early September. Late April, he says, is now Asbury territory.
“There’s no festival like this that covers these two areas, music and film, or film as it relates to music,” he said. “I can see a lot of people coming here from all over — from Germany, Japan, Toronto. It’s the soft opening for the summer, and it’s a destination.”
For more information on the Asbury Park Music & Film Festival, go to www.apmff.org.