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Shooting for the Stars

June 1, 2011 By:
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"The Best and the Brightest" cast a sparkling light on Rittenhouse Park when it was shown as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

The man who helped land "Black Swan" for its Philadelphia premiere last year is dancing as fast as he can, putting the city on its cinematic feet.

An upcoming movie festival, a just-announced filmmaker's contest, seminars, sneak screenings -- all quite a fete for J. Andrew Greenblatt, who, in the three years since assuming the role of executive director of the Philadelphia Film Society, has helped put the focus on Philly as a major market in the worldwide movie-fest business.

He's made his own mark, too: From Ambler to American University -- where he earned his law degree after George Washington University -- and back after a brief law stint, it's been a 360-degree revolutionary turn of a career, as he angles now to do what he does and knows best: finding and making films that speak to the local crowd of cineastes.

Seen it all? He tries, just returning from a movie marathon at Cannes, cannily scoping out the screen: It's all in service to the PFS's Philadelphia Film Festival, marking its 20th anniversary this year and scheduled to screen, if history is a marker, some 200 movies when it unspools for 11 days in October.

(Last year's festival coup of snaring "Black Swan" for opening night was pirouette pretty, concedes Greenblatt, citing his great relationship with distributor Searchlight Films.)

From sunrise to sunset, this 31-year-old son of a banker and teacher learned how to cram a croissant-cart of films into a tight schedule at Cannes.

Taking note of Cannes entry "Footnote," he says he would relish having the Israeli film about a father-son tag team of talmudic scholars who have their own tug of war at home, take a spot in the local film festival lineup.

"It was one of my favorites there," Greenblatt says of the film written by Joseph Cedar -- who won the festival's screenwriting award -- that was picked up by Sony Classics at Cannes.

It would fit in picture-perfectly with the local festival's profile of international/local logistics, in which "61 percent of our choices last year were foreign films."

Not that Israeli films -- or movies of a Jewish nature -- are foreign turf for Greenblatt, who recalls a childhood in Ambler ambling between movie houses and theaters.

Popcorn memories pop back into his mind; after all, he says, chuckling, who can forget Christmas days, when, like other Jewish families, he and his family "would get in line for the movies -- and, of course, go for Chinese meals."

Now he finds himself -- along with an accomplished cast and crew at the film society -- offering film fans choices from columns A and B ... and C ... and ...

Variety doesn't happen in a vacuum, he notes; there's much planning in programming: The society under his watch -- and viewing -- is known for a plethora of pictures.

Among those are offerings in the "local section," in which Philly-made films get a spotlight all their own.

A quartet of homemade products got the thumbs-up last year, with "The Best and the Brightest," a brightly drawn comedy, shot throughout Center City, casting Rittenhouse Square in a particularly lovely light.

"Cafe" was a cup of fun as well, with West Philly taking its part amid the city's sites on the big screen in a film starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.

That film hewed to the guidelines of quality work promulgated by Nationlight Production, a local house with an avowed goal of morally responsible work, Greenblatt says of the production company, in which he is a partner with, among others, Marc Erlbaum. Greenblatt says he admires Erlbaum and the company because their "mandate and mission has a Jewish sensibility" that infuses the themes and focus of works filmed.

Greenblatt's own ride to the top has not been without the occasional bump; there was last year's fallout between some PFS board members and former festival guru Ray Murray and his TLA Entertainment Group, which left Murray setting up his own festival project.

But then, competition may have proven beneficial for all: Greenblatt and the PFS are in a competitive mood these days, having nothing to do with the past but everything to do with the future Philly film landscape.

Recent recipient of a prestigious Knight Art Challenge grant -- one of 36 local groups chosen--the PFS has big plans for little movies.

"We're looking for short films by local filmmakers that incorporate one of 20 Philadelphia icons -- which can be locations, food -- into their films," Greenblatt says of the just-announced contest that will use Knight funds.

Contestants can even phone it in: "They can shoot on their iPhones, if they want, and submit it," inviting submissions of 30-minute (or less) flicks.

As for content, contestants can shoot what they want to their heart's content. But Greenblatt is wary of anyone submitting their Bar Mitzvah videos.

Unless, he kibitzes, "they're under 30 minutes."

After all, rules are rules, says the man ruling a picture-perfect Philadelphia corner of the world these days.

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