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Our local festival gives independent filmmakers the red-carpet treatment

Matt Smollon is staring intensely at his phone. Don’t get the wrong idea; he’s not checking his email or scrolling through social media. In fact, he’s working through a detailed list of almost 250 films from around the world from directors vying for his attention. And he and his vastly experienced team are going to screen every single submission. That’s the embarrassment of riches you get when you’re the founder and director of the SOMA Film Festival.

SOMA Film Festival team L to R: Richard Stephen Bell, Linda Beck, Jennifer McClory, Matt Smollon, John Clifford, Susan Greeley and Thomas Hanna.

This year, the SOMA Film Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary, attracting local, national, and international filmmakers to the Maplewood and South Orange communities. The screenings, filmmaker Q&As, and a host of other special events will take place at The Woodland in Maplewood.

Smollon and his festival team have a lot of reasons to be proud. Last year, they screened more than 100 films over five days, attracted 1,500-plus attendees from near and far, and hosted actor, director, (and, of course, beloved Muppet icon) Frank Oz. But when you ask Smollon what he treasures most about his five years at the helm of this marquee event, he’s quick to champion the importance of independent filmmaking.

“I think in the culture, media, and entertainment landscape we live in, there are fewer and fewer venues showing independent film,” says Smollon. “And I know that as an independent filmmaker, when you go out to shoot that first scene, you’re not thinking, ‘I can’t wait to watch this on digital.’ You’re thinking ‘I can’t wait to watch this in the theater with all my friends.’ That’s your dream. For a lot of independent filmmakers, it’s just a long shot. So we just try to really cater to the filmmaker and make that happen.”

Last year, the festival hosted legendary filmmaker, actor, and voice-over artist Frank Oz and his film, "Muppet Guys Talking," along with the film’s producer, Victoria Labalme.

The idea for the festival came from Smollon and his longtime collaborator Thomas Hanna, who is co-director of the festival. A lawyer by trade, Hanna left the field to work in films and subsequently produced one of Smollon’s scripts. “Matt is an excellent screenwriter,” says Hanna. “We always talked about starting a festival. When he moved out to South Orange, we realized this is the perfect community for one. We were shocked that there wasn’t already one, to be honest.”

Smollon and his wife, Mary Scott, have been residents of South Orange for 13 years. Their 10-year-old daughter Regan attends Clinton Elementary School. When he isn’t screening potential festival entries, Smollon is busy coaching his daughter’s softball team.

And of course, he also brings a substantial amount of film industry experience to the community.

Smollon has had his screenplays optioned by Miramax Films and served as a development executive and writer at Shooting Gallery films. Previously, he was with the NFL’s marketing department in addition to working as a copywriter and in public relations. “I have an artist’s soul and a businessman’s heart,” he says.

The first two years of the festival took place at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). Smollon estimates that the inaugural year brought in 600 to 800 attendees. Each year, the team is looking to develop the festival in a variety of ways. “We’ve made a conscious decision to try to grow every year,” says Hanna. “So whether it’s in qualities of film, or it’s adding days or nights to the festival, or providing year-round programming, I think it’s important that we try to maintain footing in both the South Orange and Maplewood communities.”

Photo credit: Jamie Meier

To that end, the film festival serves not only as a venue that screens impressive films, but also boasts the well-curated Kids Program. In addition, the festival has developed a strong partnership with student filmmakers at Seton Hall University and provides opportunities for high school students to display their work through their collaborations with Cinema Ed.

In order to offer such a broad range of films and programs, Smollon relies on a team of collaborators. Linda Beck, an artistic development specialist, joined the festival during the second season as a program director, heading up the Kids Program. “What I do in television is to find visual development artists and propose candidates for new show ideas,” she says. Her clients have included Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and DreamWorks TV.

Beck explains that she tailors the Kids Program to the local community. “As we progress through the years, we’ve gotten better at gauging what our audiences really dig, and then we can kind of push them a little bit,” she says. “We noticed early on that the kids can actually get through films that you might not have thought a kid could sit through. So we can challenge them

a little bit and put a more abstract realm in rather than just a strictly narrative film with a really straightforward storyline.”

Maplewood resident Susan Greeley has been a program director with the festival since the beginning. Her focus is on short films and she estimates that the festival selects only 5 percent of the submissions that come through. In addition to previous experience as the associate short film programmer for the Tribeca Film Festival and Tribeca Enterprises’ United In-flight Program, she has roughly 25 years of experience that includes worldwide film distribution, acquisitions, programming, and business development. She champions the short film format. “I made it a mission to make sure through business development and then through distribution, that they [short films] should be treated and valued the same as high quality full-length content.”

As co-founder and executive director of Cinema Ed, South Orange resident Richard Stephen Bell uses independent film as a teaching tool to provide opportunities for young filmmakers to develop their craft and artistic voice. He joined the festival team and created what he called “a festival within a festival” for high school filmmaking students to show their work. As the festival has grown, so has the close relation with Bell’s work under Cinema Ed. This year he’s working as a festival programmer. “High school students are getting much more exposure with our festival,” says Bell. “Matt is a very strong advocate and the festival has become a conduit for more young filmmakers to get their story out.”

“He [Richard] is such a hands-on teacher and so empowering to student filmmakers,” says Columbia High School alum and filmmaker Max Goldstein. In addition to developing several projects while at Columbia, Goldstein was the winner for SOMA Film Festival’s Best Animation of Colors of the Spirit in the Cinema Ed Young Filmmakers track. Goldstein currently studies as a first-year student at University of Texas at Austin where he is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Radio-Television-Film.

Based on his experience with Goldstein as a student and festival participant, Bell recommended him to speak on a panel about empowering students through filmmaking and storytelling during last fall’s Austin Film Festival. “I really want to learn about history and literature and become a worldly scholar of higher education so I can apply that to the film world,” says Goldstein. “It was just a great thing to see this local filmmaker from South Orange who participated in SOMA Film Festival to speak on a panel with so many impressive panelists,” adds Bell. “And Max was just so well spoken and dynamic.”

The SOMA Film Festival is made possible by generous sponsor support. L to R: Thomas and Julie Pauly of Able Baker and Ellen and Jonah Zimiles of Words Bookstore.

Since the outset of the festival, Smollon has nurtured a partnership with film students at Seton Hall University. Bill Pace, faculty associate of digital media production at Seton Hall, believes the festival provides vital experience for his students. “Films are a very public art form. You don’t make it just for yourself,” he says. “You make it to share with an audience. That’s really something that’s impossible to teach. It’s really important for them [the students] to go see their work with an audience and see how they react.”

Pace and his students presented 16 projects at the festival last year which involved at least 30 Seton Hall students. “I’m so impressed with the students and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” says Smollon. “We have a fantastic partnership with the university and their film forum keeps getting better and better.”

The film submissions may be coming from all over the planet, but the festival team believes the local community is the real key to the festival’s success. “While the ticket prices are a big part of our pie, sponsorship is still the majority of our funding,” says Smollon. “Our local businesses step up and support us. These business owners are our friends and neighbors and we constantly appreciate what they do. And every vendor we use is local. We do not go out of the two towns. We have to support them, too.”

Meanwhile, the reputation of the SOMA Film Festival continues to grow. “If we treat our filmmakers well, then word gets out we’re the good guys,” says Hanna. “We have a great team and we get a lot of repeat submitters for the festival. I hope that means we’re doing something right.”

The 5th SOMA Film Festival will take place Wednesday, March 18 through Sunday, March 22.

Visit for ticket information and program details, and for other events presented throughout the year.

Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. Favorite movies include Taxi Driver, Napoleon Dynamite, and more recently, Parasite. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio.

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