Philadelphia Film Society finds place at Penn

Black Swan was shown at last year's opening gala at Zellerbach theater

· October 19, 2011, 11:25 pm   ·  Updated October 19, 2011, 11:59 pm

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The marriage between Penn and the Philadelphia Film Society’s Filmadelphia film festival — running from Oct. 20 to Nov. 3 — is a match made in economic, cultural and intellectual heaven.

Filmadelphia celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and according to Madison Cairo, Annenberg Center director of operations and special artistic initiatives, 63 screenings ­— just over half of the festival — will be held in facilities owned by the University.

Executive Director of Public Affairs Tony Sorrentino explained that the partnership between the festival and the University — an official sponsor of the festival — began with the opening of the the Bridge Cinema de Lux, now Rave Motion Pictures, at 40th and Walnut streets in 2003.

“When we opened up the Bridge Cinema, we saw it as an opportunity to not only provide a theater for Penn students and University City residents, but to turn 40th Street into a multi-hour experience,” he said. “It’s an economic engine, bringing new dollars into a neighborhood that, at that time, was beginning to emerge with restaurants and places to linger.”

Soon after the Bridge opened its doors, Sorrentino reached out to festival directors with the hope of luring economic activity from the festival’s Old City hub to the West Philadelphia community — and in turn, promoting a theater that University City could call its own.

“What better way to do some marketing, branding and promotion than to have the theater booked every day for a film festival movie?” he said, adding, “We’re always looking to promote University City, and the film festival was a tactic to fit the bill.”

J. Andrew Greenblatt, executive director of the PFS, said that the relationship between Penn and PFS has grown significantly over the last two years, especially by moving the festival’s opening night to the Zellerbach Theater at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

“There’s no theater in this city like the Zellerbach right now,” Greenblatt said. The theater seats 957 patrons and is one of the largest film projection screens in the city, Cairo said.

“It’s a 35 millimeter [projection] — a fantastically huge screen that looks gorgeous,” Greenblatt added. “It’s the near-perfect setting for a large gala screening.”

Black Swan was screened at last year’s opening gala, where the Pennsylvania Ballet ballerinas who danced in the film took up the Zellerbach’s first rows. Director Darren Aranofsky made a surprise appearance at the showing, where he saw his film out of the editing room and on the big screen for the very first time. After the screening, he spontaneously conducted a question-and-answer session with the audience.

“What a fantastic moment it was for Philadelphia,” Sorrentino said. “You could just feel the enthusiasm in the lobby that night.”

Following the success of last year’s opening night, PFS decided to hold both its opening and closing screenings in Zellerbach, with a preceding gala at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“The Zellerbach literally brings thousands in,” Sorrentino said. “Hopefully, the same people come back to the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Anthropology Museum and the Kelly Writer’s House.”

As just one aspect of the University’s long-term “Arts at Penn” initiative, Sorrentino hopes the film festival partnership “will be the magnet that draws them in.”

But the film festival benefits the University more than just economically.

Associate Director of Cinema Studies Nicola Gentili takes on a scholarly role in the festival and “uses it as a medium for intellectual engagement.”

For the last three years of the festival, Gentili held “Cine Cafes” in the Penn Bookstore where scholars and experts in the respective fields discussed themes of the year’s festival.

“This was our role as the Cinema Studies department,” Gentili said.

When the festival took place in April up until 2009, Gentili, who organizes the Penn-in-Cannes Summer abroad program, conducted his two pre-departure lectures about the film festival.

“Cannes is a very different kind of festival,” he said. “However, to give a first taste, a flavor to students, I realized I could use the Philadelphia film festival.”

The relationship between Penn and Filmadelphia is healthy and still growing.

“It’s something I care a lot about,” Sorrentino said. Greenblatt added, “We love Penn.”

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