by Brendan Sample
When Zeke Zelker’s “Billboard” premieres at the Flourtown Movie Tavern on Friday, April 5 (among other local theaters), it will stand out for a number of reasons. Zelker is not only a Pennsylvania filmmaker based in the Lehigh Valley, but his newest film also goes beyond the traditional movie-going experience by living in a variety of media formats outside of the big screen.
The film tells the story of a small-town Pennsylvania radio station, WTYT 960, struggling to stay afloat in a changing market. The station’s new owner, Casey Lindeweiler, seeks to bring more attention to the station by hosting a billboard sit-in contest, where the person who can live on a catwalk in front of a billboard the longest will win “nine-sixty thousand [sic]” dollars and a mobile home. Though the contest does draw plenty of eyes, it also comes with increased scrutiny from his colleagues, the authorities and the media, among others.
Aside from being a feature-length movie, “Billboard” also manifests itself through an actual digital radio station accessible on WTYT960.com. The station showcases the music of over 1,000 bands that will promote the movie while getting increased exposure themselves. Additionally, Zelker also set up a web series called “The Billboard Sitters,” which is dedicated to further delving into the lives of the characters seeking to win the contest.
Zelker calls this method of telling a film’s story across multiple mediums a “cine•experience.” He has used this method to shape his filmmaking career, which has included such works as “Pandemic,” the first multimedia project at the Sundance Film Festival, and “InSearchOf,” which was in the top 10 dramas viewed on Hulu for seven years. This approach has defined his work and that of his production company, iDreamMachine. While a love of filmmaking has certainly been present for his entire career, this desire to tell cinematic stories in a unique way is something that has developed over time.
“I’ve gotten away from the term ‘transmedia’ because there was some confusion over people thinking that I was talking about transgender people in cinema,” Zelker said. “It’s something that was never really defined until about eight years ago … Things have really developed in technology, and I decided that I wanted to show elements over multiple outlets and mediums.”
In addition to the fact that Zelker is based in Lehigh Valley, the film has a greater connection to Pennsylvania in that it is based on a similar event he remembers from his childhood. That billboard-sitting competition certainly stuck with him, as this project is the culmination of years of trying to recreate the contest on the big screen.
“I’ve wanted to do something about this for eons now, almost from the start of my career,” Zelker recalled. “It’s always stuck with me. I’ve been actively producing this for about 10 years now, and it’s ultimately been on the back of my mind since around 1996.”
“Billboard” will be premiering in Pennsylvania theaters before heading to Los Angeles next week, with a national release following the week after. While there is plenty of excitement surrounding the wide release of a film, it is especially important to Zelker that his movie has the chance to be released in the same state where he has done so much of his work.
“It means a lot to have this premiere here, and it’s interesting to see how people who might have known about the original context will react to it,” Zelker said. “I learned quite a bit from early previews. It’s fun to do this in a place that’s familiar with your work than it is a new place. Every place is so different and has its own pluses and minuses. I’m just excited to show it in the area in a big way.”
Though the film obviously has a special connection to Pennsylvania, Zelker does not see this as something that is meant for residents of the state. This is an experience that he wants to resonate with audiences in a special way, regardless of where the viewer calls home.
“The thing I hope audiences take away from this most is basically that we’re all underdogs and that we have to fight for what we believe in: for success and not to fear failure,” Zelker said. “This is a story about an entrepreneur struggling to achieve success. It ultimately plays off of the idea that someone can succeed even if all the odds seem insurmountable.”
For more information on “Billboard,” visit billboardmovie.com. Brendan Sample can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-248-8819.