Chestnut Hillers shine at Philadelphia Film Festival
by Nathan Lerner
The Philadelphia Film Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a cornucopia of 120 feature films from around the world. Running from Oct. 20 through Nov. 3, the festival will have a decidedly international flavor, encompassing works from such diverse countries as Ghana, Israel, South Korea, Argentina, Turkey and China. On a more local note, the festival will also feature several Chestnut Hill residents in prominent roles.

Chestnut Hill resident, Ralph Hirshorn (2nd from right), serves on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Film Society, which is producing the upcoming Philadelphia Film Festival. A former movie producer himself, Ralph is seen here with (from left) Nancy Evans, Jon Crane, Susan Crane and Ralph’s wife, Natalie, on June 11, 2010, at Morris Arboretum’s annual Moonlight & Roses event. (Photo by Susan Scovill)

The program will include 2004’s “Friday Night Lights,” a cinematic adaptation of the non-fiction bestseller by Chestnut Hill resident and Pulitzer Prize winner, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. Set in the economically depressed town of Odessa, Texas, the book depicts the community’s obsession with their high school football team. Bissinger’s cousin, Peter Berg, co-wrote the screenplay for the film and also directed it. The film will be shown Tuesday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m., at the Prince Theater. Following the screening, Berg will discuss it as well as his varied career as an actor, screenwriter and director. Bissinger is scheduled to be on hand to introduce his cousin at the screening.

Another prominent Chestnut Hill resident, Ralph Hirshorn, serves on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Film Society, which produces the festival. Although he is currently an insurance executive with offices on Highland Avenue, Hirshorn has an interesting background in film. In 1959, while matriculating as an undergraduate at Yale University, Hirshorn made a short subject that was distributed by Grove Press.

Hirshorn characterized it as “an avant garde satire. It was something of an underground hit.” Yale presented it to the Screen Producers Guild for consideration for their Jesse L. Lasky Gold Medallion. Hirshorn recalled, “I met Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, Walter Mirisch, Jack Warner and Kim Novak when I was presented with the award by Eva Marie Saint at a star-studded event at the Beverly Hilton.”

The film served as springboard for Hirshorn. Columbia Pictures offered him a contract, which led to a few years in various positions including story editor, associate producer, and assistant to the head of production. However, following the death of his father, Hirshorn abandoned his promising career in Hollywood in order to care for his mother and salvage the family business. This ultimately led to full-time residence in Chestnut Hill, replete with a wife and two children.

Twenty years ago, when the Philadelphia Film Festival, then named the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, was first unveiled, it was only natural that Hirshorn became involved with the fledgling organization. Hirshorn still remains on the Board of Directors as an active member, “I occasionally champion a film that I may have seen at another festival,” he said.

This year, the Hirshorn Company will be sponsoring two films in the festival, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Collaborator.” The latter film co-stars yet another Chestnut Hill resident, David Morse, who won “Best Actor” honors at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Hirshorn explained the reasons for sponsoring these particular films: “This is what you go to a film festival for. They are original and of undisputed quality. On the other hand, their subject matter and the size of their budgets preclude promotional outlays, box-office numbers or even, in many cases, commercial release. Independent films have become a dwindling piece of the ticket sales pie. There are, of course, at least 20 other films I would strongly recommend this year, but viewers should take their chances. That is how you find the gems!” (Hirshorn is also active in the Chestnut Hill Film Group, which on many Tuesday nights at the Chestnut Hill Library shows (for free) classic films that generally cannot be found on video.)

Andrew Greenblatt will serve as executive director of the affair for the third time. He explained, “First and foremost, we wanted to mark our milestone anniversary by delivering the best program yet. I believe that our fantastic programming team accomplished that.”

In another acknowledgment of the past, this year’s program includes three films that are also marking their 20th anniversary. Each one of these is paired with a current film from the same director. This includes the Academy Award-winning “The Silence of the Lambs” along with Jonathan Demme’s current documentary, “I’m Carolyn Parker.” Demme is scheduled to be at the festival to introduce his soon-to-be released film.

Two heavyweight pugilists of yesteryear will also be front and center at the film festival in conjunction with hard-hitting documentaries about them. Former World Champion, Joe Frazier, yet another Philadelphian, will be feted at “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears,” while Chuck Wepner will conduct an audience Q & A after “The Real Rocky.”

With regard to the balance between foreign and domestic films, Greenblatt pointed out, “The ratios are similar to last year. Approximately 57% of the feature films are from other countries. We have put an emphasis on bringing foreign films to Philadelphia as it’s very difficult for such films to get the appropriate attention they deserve.”

For more information on the Philadelphia Film Festival, visit

Nathan Lerner, the director of Davenport Communications, sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at