Allentown Finally Gets a Film Festival

by Tim Dunne

“Allentown needs a film festival,” insists West Park resident Michael Schelp. “Philadelphia has almost forty. Pittsburgh, twenty. Even tiny Milford, PA has the wonderful Black Bear Film Festival. Milford! More people work in the PPL Building than live in Milford!!”

Determined to help Allentown catch up, Schelp and his partner Alan Younkin established the nonprofit Allentown Film Festival last August. They teamed up with the historic Civic Theatre of Allentown to launch the inaugural festival from April 14 – 16, 2023, at the Civic’s two venues on 19th Street in the West End Theatre District.

“People have been talking about starting a film festival for years,” confirms Civic Theatre Managing Artistic Director William Sanders. “We are thrilled to host what we hope will become a highly-anticipated annual tradition.”

According to The Guardian newspaper, film festivals operate like “micro-economies.” They make smaller cities boom by bringing in business, giving young people a reason to remain in the region, and developing a city’s national and international links. If that’s true, Allentown is ready to boom.

To date, the Allentown Film Festival has received over 150 submissions from 23 countries. Film submissions will be accepted until March 1, 2023, via Dozens of short and feature-length films will be screened.

“The Allentown Film Festival will honor works from around the world, but we are especially eager to celebrate and promote local filmmakers,” promises Festival Director Younkin. “We’ve created three short film awards for which only Lehigh Valley students and residents will be eligible. The top prize is $1,000.”

Submitting films is straightforward. After setting up a free account, filmmakers click on the Allentown Film Festival link and submit one or more films by clicking a few buttons.

The organizers have been heartened by the local support from the Allentown Arts Commission, foundations, and the business community to date.

“The goal is to identify and encourage compelling, thought-provoking independent films,” adds Younkin. “The Allentown Film Festival will not only boost Lehigh Valley pride but also remind people in the Mid-Atlantic region that Allentown is a vibrant, much-closer-than-you-think arts mecca.” The organizers hope to draw filmmakers and movie buffs from Philadelphia, New York, and other major East Coast cities by conducting an aggressive marketing campaign that includes television, radio, print, outdoor, and social media.

“Many of North America’s largest cities are less than a half-day’s drive from Allentown,” says Schelp. “We want to create a must-see destination event with VIP Red Carpet parties, street performers, compelling films, and engaging panel discussions. We want to spread the word – Allentown is a lot more than a Billy Joel song about postindustrial angst.”

Schelp’s history with film festivals goes back to 1978. “When I was a high school student in DC, the local NBC affiliate accepted in its Homegrown Film Festival a short animated movie I made of the high school chemistry teacher dancing with the math teacher. At the time, I was shocked that my little 8mm film was selected, but now I get it – the film was short, visually unusual, and fun. We definitely want quirky shorts that surprise audiences.”

The Allentown Film Festival logo features robust fonts that pay homage to the city’s industrial history. Capping the logo is the stepped profile of the iconic PPL Building, the windows of which echo the square sprocket holes of the film strip below in which “FILM FESTIVAL” is carved. A stylized Liberty Bell is concealed in the “A” of FESTIVAL, a reference to Allentown’s historical role in safeguarding the actual Liberty Bell during the American Revolutionary War when it was hidden from the British in a local church.

Schelp is careful not to build unrealistic expectations, at least not for the inaugural festival. “We won’t be as big as Sundance and other festivals that boast $50 million annual budgets,” he admits. “But Hey! We have a cooler logo.”

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