More than 100 years later, New Jersey remains a great place to see cutting-edge films, perhaps because so many are shot here.
"We have a tremendously active film industry right now," said Steven Gorelick, the associate director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission.
With the boom in film production - a $78 million statewide industry in 2003 - Gorelick said it was natural that film festivals would follow.
"A lot of our movies are the types that end up in film festivals," he said. "We have a lot of independent filmmakers working here, so it makes sense that we have film festivals here exhibiting their work."
While many of the festivals taking place across the state are just a few years old, some have been mainstays. "When you have a film festival come in, it attracts hundreds or thousands of people," Gorelick said.
So get your tickets early and save yourself a seat at one of New Jersey's exciting film festivals this spring.New Jersey Film Festival
One of the longest-running and best-known film festivals in the state, the New Jersey Film Festival takes place across three months twice a year. The festival's current slate of art-house, international, obscure and revival films runs through April 17 at various venues at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
"We have a good reputation of showing good films," said Albert Nigrin, executive director of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center that runs the bi-annual festival. "We're here to provide [the public] with films they can't readily see."
Screenings this spring will include Word Wars, a documentary about championship Scrabble players, from April 8 to April 10, and Travelers and Magicians, a film that draws on fables and myths to tell the modern story of a young man with big dreams, set against the breathtaking landscapes of the Asian country of Bhutan, from April 1 to April 3.
A panel of film professionals picks the festival's slate, with Nigrin usually saving one slot for a personal favorite. This year, he chose Cowards Bend the Knee, based equally on Greek tragedies and the youth of its iconoclastic director, Guy Maddin, which runs from March 25 to March 27. Nigrin noted that films such as Maddin's often have a hard time finding distribution outside of New York City.
"We're kind of like Film Forum for New Jersey," he said, referring to the noted New York art-house theater. "The idea is to have something like this close to home," he said. "We get about 15,000 people a year to our screenings, which is nothing to sneeze at."
For a list of film screenings and events, visit www.njfilmfest.com or call (732) 932-8482.
Trenton Film Festival
"There are a lot of great festivals in New Jersey," said Kevin Williams, director of the Trenton Film Festival, which is entering its second year this spring. But what sets the Trenton Film Festival apart, Williams said, is variety. "We really want to be able to serve as large an audience as possible," he said. "We want to show as many different kinds of films as we can."
With eight competitive categories, including animated short films and experimental works, as well as special family film screenings and retrospectives, Williams said he hopes everyone can find something to love.
The festival drew 1,200 people in its first year, and Williams said he's anticipating 2,000 to 2,500 this year. "We really think that word is getting out," he said.
The festival, which runs from April 29 to May 1, will include more than 60 short films and about 17 features, many of them filmed in New Jersey.
"They're fresh, they're new," Williams said. "We want fresh voices, we want passionate voices."
The festival rewards these voices with the Ernie Kovacs Award, named for the innovative Trenton-born entertainer who influenced a generation of television personalities from Conan O'Brien to David Letterman. Kovacs' 1958 film Bell Book and Candle will screen at this year's festival. The Kovacs awards themselves are cut from I-beams recycled from Trenton buildings.
The festival will also hold seminars on screenwriting and acting as well as a case study on an Oscar-nominated short film, in which the filmmakers will discuss how the movie was planned, shot, marketed and distributed.
"There are a lot of filmmakers here, but no one knows about anyone else," Williams said. "We can really help people. We can actually make a pretty good impact."
For a list of film screenings and events, visit www.trentonfilmfestival.org or call (609) 396-6966.
New Jersey Jewish Film Festival
The five-year-old New Jersey Jewish Film Festival has made a name for itself alongside such national Jewish film festivals as the Boston, San Francisco and Vancouver Jewish film festivals.
"There's a circuit of Jewish film festivals around the county," said Herbert Ford, co-chair of the NJJFF committee. "The [New Jersey Jewish Film] festival came together because I had been to the Washington Jewish Film Festival - my son Joshua was then the film festival coordinator. I went to it and thought it was a great event, and I thought we should have our own."
Ford said that the NJJFF focuses on films that feature "storylines of Jewish lives that the people should know about." He said that there are many stories about Jewish families and heritage that deserve public recognition.
This year, the festival - which runs from April 7 to April 17 - will screen such features as The Ritchie Boys, a documentary about German Jewish émigrés who joined the Army intelligence effort during World War II, and Wondrous Oblivion, a comedy in which noted actor Delroy Lindo plays a Jamaican who moves into a working-class British neighborhood in the 1950s near a family of Holocaust survivors.
The festival also regularly hosts filmmakers and runs panel discussions along with its screenings, which draw anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 people each year.
"Our festival has a particular focus on Jewish life around the world, and I think that's what makes it unique," Ford said. "Sometimes we help create word-of-mouth for films."
Ford said that word of mouth is often the best way for independent or foreign-made movies to find distribution.
Because of the NJJFF, Ford said, "You don't have to go to Sundance, you don't have to go the Hamptons." For a list of film screenings and events, visit www.njjff.org or call (973) 736-3200, ext. 253.
Garden State Film Festival
One of the new kids on the block is the three-year-old Garden State Film Festival, which will be held April 7 to April 10. Founded by Executive Director Diane Raver and the late actor Robert Pastorelli, best remembered for his regular role on Murphy Brown, the festival put down roots in the middle of Asbury Park.
Featured as a part of the city's ongoing revitalization efforts, the festival includes shorts, features, animation pieces, commercials, public service announcements, and - because of the city's famed music history - music videos.
"Asbury Park, New Jersey is a crossroads of the music and film industries," Raver said. The festival takes place each year in the grand Paramount Theater, whose stage has been graced by famous musical acts for decades.
This year, the festival more than quadrupled the number of entries it received, and Raver is expecting to better the number of attendees - 7,000 - they saw last year.
"With Bobby [Pastorelli]'s support and kindness, we launched this thing, and it has gone far beyond my wildest expectations," Raver said.
Aside from film screenings, the festival features youth workshops, panel discussions and an open talent casting call. Raver said that helping local talent is a key component of the festival's mission.
"The beauty of an independent film is that it's made from the filmmaker's heart," she said, "and you really need to acknowledge that."
The festival acknowledges New Jersey filmmakers with the Homegrown Award, presented to one outstanding film that was shot in New Jersey from each category.
For a list of film screenings and events, visit www.gsff.org or call (877) 908-7050.
Asian-American Film Festival
Under the banner program Movies on the Hudson, the Fort Lee Film Commission (FLFC) started the Asian-American Film Festival as a part of the town's centennial celebration last year.
"Fort Lee was a very diverse filmmaking community almost 100 years ago," said Tom Meyers, Executive Director of the FLFC, citing pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who shot his 1919 film Within Our Gates in Fort Lee.
Meyers said he hopes the Asian-American Film Festival, on April 3 at 1 p.m., will tap into the town's diverse population. "We have a pretty decent-sized Asian-American population," he said. "We want to connect with the kids in the school system [to] let them know what's out there in terms of films being made by Asian-American filmmakers."
The five-year-old FLFC organized the first Asian-American festival with director Greg Pak, who received notice last year for his festival-friendly Robot Stories. The full-day event drew more than 100 attendees to the newly renovated Fort Lee Historic Park Theater.
"The venue is beautiful, right on top of the Palisades," Meyers said, "with a view of the George Washington Bridge."
Meyers said he hopes to fill the 200-seat theater this year. "I'd like to see a full house, because I think this event deserves it," he said. "We've been reaching out to different segments of the community ... and we've done it, so far, successfully."
Meyers said the films last year were outstanding, and that the films this year should continue Fort Lee's - and New Jersey's - exceptional history of filmmaking.
"We were on the cutting edge 100 years ago," he said. "We were pioneers, and I think we still are today." For a list of film screenings and events, visit www.fortleefilm.org or call (201) 592-3663.
Also in a theater near you...
Plenty of other film events will be taking place in New Jersey over the next few months. Here is a listing:
* The second annual Hudson County Film & Video Festival, featuring works from Hudson County artists, will run in the Jersey City Museum in April. Visit www.jerseycitymuseum.org or call (201) 459-2070.
* The Dover Film Festival will screen in Dover in Morris County this May. Visit www.doverfilmfestival.org or call (973) 769-8168.
* The 2005 Central Jersey Student Film Festival, featuring some of the best works from New Jersey high school and college students, will be held on May 13 at Jackson Memorial High School in Jackson. Visit www.centraljerseyfilmfestival.com/cjsff/ or call (908) 839-9051 or (732) 513-6920.
* The 24th annual Black Maria Film & Video Festival tours around the country and abroad through June, exhibiting experimental and avant-garde short films. First place films are eligible for Academy Awards consideration. Check the calendar of events for New Jersey screenings, or visit www.blackmariafilmfestival.org or call (201) 200-2043.
* The Ocean City Film Festival will run from June 1 to June 5 in Ocean City in Ocean County. Visit www.oceancityfilmfestival.com.
* The 31st annual Newark Black Film Festival will present works from African-American filmmakers at the Newark Museum this summer. Visit www.newarkmuseum.org or call (973) 596-6550.
* The Myhelan Indie Film Festival will come to Chester in Morris County this summer. Visit www.myhelan.org or call (908) 876-5959.
* Hoboken's free Movies Under the Stars series runs every Wednesday evening from June through August at Pier A Park. Visit www.hobokennj.org or call (201) 420-2207.
* The Fort Lee Film Commission runs film screenings year round. Visit www.fortleefilm.org or call (201) 592-3663.