Bill Sorvino is an actor with 20 film credits to his name. He has also played the role of director, writer, and producer on various movie projects. In 2010 he founded the Golden Door Film Festival to celebrate indie films in his hometown of Jersey City. The four-day event, which Sorvino runs with his wife, Michele Sorvino, holds its opening and closing nights at the historic Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre. They also screen films at various local venues.
The festival name was inspired by the last line of the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on a tablet on the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty.
“Jersey City is America’s Golden Door,” Bill says. “It’s meaningful to me because my grandparents came from Italy. They are the reason I grew up in Jersey City. My grandfather landed in Jersey City and stayed here his whole life. I pictured him on the boat seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.”
Bill says that he wanted his festival to evoke the feeling that his grandfather experienced when arriving in America, like they are entering a new world of equal opportunity. “I always wanted it to be an open-door platform for filmmakers to feel like they’re part of the big show whether their budget was nothing or millions,” he says.
“When we bring in celebrities we don’t do a VIP spot,” Michele says. That’s one way that Golden Door treats everyone as equals. It also gives filmmakers the opportunity to network with famous people. “If you have the nerve to go up to them and say hello, then you can go up to them and say hello,” she says.
Bill says that most film festivals don’t have the same fair principles, with the star treatment reserved only for celebrities. Golden Door aims to roll out the red carpet for everyone. “I didn’t like feeling lesser because I was with a short film,” Bill says. “Maybe if I had said, ‘Hey, I’m Bill Sorvino,’ then that wouldn’t be the case, but I don’t do that.”
All in the Family
Bill is the nephew of actor Paul Sorvino, who is known for his roles in Goodfellas and the television show Law & Order. His cousins include Academy Award Winner Mira Sorvino, and actors Amanda and Michael Sorvino.
Growing up, his family alternated between Paul Sorvino’s house in Tenafly and Bill Sorvino’s family home in Jersey City for Sunday dinners.
“Even way back then he would take over a room and start singing and telling jokes,” Bill recalls of his uncle. He was also close to his cousins. “Me and Mira and the rest of the kids would be running around playing, and we would put on little shows.”
“Fun fact: Billy and Mira got married when they were little kids,” Michele says, clarifying that they played bride and groom in one of those childhood plays. “Mira actually told that story when we went to her wedding back in 2004. She told everybody that it wasn’t actually her first wedding!” The story got the whole crowd laughing.
Even though he was born into a family with generations of acting talent, Bill didn’t branch out into film until the birth of his daughter 10 years ago. She inspired him to tell the type of stories that he wanted her to see.
“I try and take projects that would in some way, shape, or form have a positive impact,” he says. “The medium of film touches everyone. It’s universal. You can affect people’s lives. When a movie is meaningful, it can really change the world. It shows that either you aren’t alone in the way you see things, or it can introduce you to a new way of seeing things.”
Art Imitates Life
One movie that Michele was deeply moved by is Six Letter Word by writer/director Lisanne Sartor. It features Rumer Willis as a young mother caring for her special-needs son. Michele watched the film while she was on the board of Morristown Memorial Hospital and fundraising for its Autism Center.
“I started to feel like I was in two separate worlds, one trying to make awareness for autism and another working with the film festival,” says Michele, who is executive director of Golden Door. The film helped her make the connection between both roles. “We could impact the world if we use the festival for autism awareness,” she says. “That’s how we came up with the philanthropic arm of the festival.”
They started working with a sponsor, Autism Speaks, which is dedicated to autism awareness. The fest grew to include an autism awareness seminar and movies about autism and by autistic filmmakers.
"I was inspired by the feeling to make a change when my son was diagnosed with PPD,” Michele says. PPD is Pervasive Developmental Disorder, a” sub-threshold” of autism or a high-functioning person whose symptoms overlap with Asperger’s Syndrome. “It was then I realized I needed to become an ever-stronger mom and advocate for him. I read all the material, every law and right that came my way, and before I knew it I was an advocate."
The films speak for themselves.
"I am typically blown away by the response and quality of films we receive, especially in the raising- awareness category,” Michele says. “The filmmakers are so creative in the storytelling. It's so unique, and I love watching those films. Last year we had an amazing film by John Asher called “PO.” It was a complete tearjerker. Everyone in the theater was crying. John came from California to Jersey City to screen this film. He was previously married to Jenny McCarthy, and they had an autistic son together. It was amazing to watch this film!"
According to its website, Golden Door is the first and only film festival that has a segment dedicated to creating autism awareness.
Golden Door a Hit
The Sorvinos are proud that each year the festival has grown. This year they received almost double the submissions that they got last year. Of these, only some will make it into the festival. The ones that do will be up for competitive awards such as the Women in Cinema-Alice Guy Blache Award.
Bill says that one thing that makes the festival thrive is the working relationship he has with his wife.
“Michele is great at organizing,” he says. “The four days of that festival this girl doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, I don’t know how she does it.”
Michele says that Bill’s strength is his movie experience.
“Billy is an actor,” she says. “He’s in the industry. His family has been in the industry for so long. There are industry standards that if you didn’t grow up in it, you don’t know.” She enjoys the planning aspect of Golden Door. “We’re really known to throw a great party every night,” she says.
Bill says that another part of their success is a shift in the Jersey City arts scene, a change they’ve benefitted from, but also one they helped to create: “The arts have become part of the mainstream in Jersey City.”—JCM
Learn more at goldendoorfilmfestival.org