From the Vault: A look at Central PA's indie film festivals

This weekend marks the 7th annual running of the Rumschpringe International Short Film Festival in downtown Lancaster. The three-day festival features screenings of short films in six different categories – drama, comedy, music video, horror, animation and documentary – at The Green Room at Franklin & Marshall College, Steinman Hall at The Ware Center and Zoetropolis Art House.

Back in May 2012, our cover story (one of our favorite cover images in some time) and Profile feature took a look at the independent film community hard at work here in Central PA, and since then, the scene has grown tremendously. In advance of this weekend’s festival, we’ve dug into the vault to bring you this inside look at the region’s indie film festivals.


Deep Focus


When Harrisburg filmmaker Caleb Smith established the Moviate independent film venue 15 years ago, it was, in many ways, out of convenience. At that time, Smith was making weekly trips to Reading – driving over an hour each way – to attend screenings hosted by Berks Filmmakers, an Albright College-affiliated group dedicated to experimental and underground films.

Eventually, the commute got to be too much. “I started thinking,” Smith recalls, “if Reading can have an avant-garde film scene, why can’t Harrisburg?”

With the help of some friends and fellow film buffs, Smith founded Moviate and began screening indie films around Harrisburg and in downtown York. In April 1998, just a year after opening Moviate, the group launched Montage, Harrisburg’s first-ever independent film festival.

The following May, Smith was asked to integrate Montage into Harrisburg’s Artsfest, the city’s annual multi-discipline art festival held Memorial Day weekend, which lacked a film component. Now in its 14th year, the Artsfest Film Festival has evolved into a multi-day, multi-venue event that attracts more than 200 submissions annually from independent filmmakers across the globe.

There’s a bigger picture, however (pun intended). The Artsfest Film Festival’s growth reflects the burgeoning independent film culture that has taken off over the last decade in Central PA. In fact, a variety of film festivals are held throughout the region, offering independent filmmakers – whether based locally, nationally or even internationally – the opportunity to showcase their craft.

In order to understand the film festival scene, it’s important to first understand what makes an independent film “independent.” Generally speaking, indie filmmakers are less interested in entertainment value than being true to an art form.

“When people think of movies, they usually think of Hollywood productions,” says Smith. “They seldom think of film as art.”


Michael Hoober, who organizes the Rumschpringe International Short Film Festival in downtown Lancaster, agrees. A professional counselor and psychology professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art & Design in Lancaster, Hoober admires the short film format as an accessible creative outlet.

“I see short film as a creative media of self-expression that almost anyone can do with modern technology,” says Hoober. “The Rumschpringe judges are looking for new and creative ideas. Even a low-budget production can compete just as well as a film that’s very well produced.”

Fly Magazine May 2012 Film Issue CoverNow in its fifth year, Rumschpringe has grown considerably since its humble beginnings in 2008. According to Hoober, the festival’s first three years showcased an average of two hours of content each year; last year’s event featured more than 11 hours, including entries from as far away as Syria and Ireland. He expects this year’s event in October to be the biggest yet and plans to grow from one venue to two or three.

Also based in Lancaster is the Lancaster Area Film Festival, which celebrates its fourth annual run on June 2 at Penn Cinema in Lititz. The event is the brainchild of filmmakers and friends Bryan Schaefer and Mark Pennell of Lancaster and Jason Prugar of Bethlehem.

“We wanted to show off our own work and help other filmmakers find a place to show off their work, too,” explains Schaefer who, along with Pennell, operates 81st Street Productions, a Lancaster-based film production house.

In particular, Schaefer notes that the “digital evolution” has made film production possible for a wider demographic. He says LAFF now receives submissions from a large number of younger filmmakers who are recording and editing their films using only a digital SLR camera and basic video editing software. This year, the digital evolution is also making its mark on LAFF itself; for the first time, films submitted in high-definition or Blu-Ray will be displayed in high-resolution through Penn Cinema’s digital cinema projection system.

A third – and much shorter – Lancaster-based film festival makes its debut this month: the 60 Second Film Fest. The event takes place on May 13 at Penn Cinema, showcasing films each lasting no longer than a minute.

In York County, this year marks the third annual Prometheus Film Festival. Unlike the Artsfest Film Festival, Rumschpringe and LAFF, Prometheus aims to showcase submissions almost exclusively from filmmakers living in Pennsylvania and its surrounding states. However, according to festival organizer Bob Haag, this year’s event – held in October – will focus particularly on PA-based filmmakers.

“There are many fine indie filmmakers in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware,” explains Haag, “but we’d like to encourage submissions from filmmakers who have the ability to attend the festival. In addition to showcasing indie films, we want to promote the filmmakers themselves. And that works best when they can actually be there.”


Smith shares in Haag’s sentiment, as Harrisburg’s Artsfest Film Festival also strives to showcase the filmmakers. Last year’s event screened 51 films; of those, 19 filmmakers were on hand to present their work.

“It’s nice to have the filmmaker there to talk about their film and give insight,” says Smith. This year’s event kicks off with a special presentation by prominent experimental filmmaker Richard Kern, including a showing of a selection of his underground films that were recently restored by The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.

While each of Central PA’s film festivals aims equally to promote independent films and filmmakers, each one goes about it a little differently. In many ways, the variety in methodology – from genres and categories to film lengths – is indicative of the independent nature of the films themselves.

For the most part, indie filmmakers aren’t striving to compete with large-scale Hollywood productions. Instead, creativity is crucial in telling the story. At any given film festival, you are likely to view one film shot on vintage equipment like Super 8mm film, only to have it followed up by a film shot entirely on an iPhone. (See this month’s Profile feature for an inside look at the local filmmaker culture.)

But whether you’re a self-described “film buff” or someone who’s simply interested in seeing a different, more artistic side of the movie industry, a film festival is the perfect outlet to satisfy your curiosities – one screening at a time.




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Posted in Arts+Culture, Arts+Culture – Harrisburg, Arts+Culture – Lancaster, Arts+Culture – York, From the Vault, Movies

Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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