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Philadelphia Film Festival: New films, new plans to serve downtown movie-goers

The 2018 Philadelphia Film Festival offers a new slate of films, and news about plans to convert the old Prince into a four-screen complex with year-around offerings for the underserved Center City market.

Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts in 'Ben is Back.'
Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts in 'Ben is Back.'Read moreMark Shafer

In a few days, Center City's biggest downtown movie hall will be the arthouse formerly known as the Prince.

When the 2018 Philadelphia Film Festival kicks off Thursday, Oct. 18 (with Ben Is Back and director Peter Hedges in attendance),  the venue will be officially renamed the Philadelphia Film Center, signalling significant changes at the site, the festival's hub and the center of year-around activities for the Film Society and moviegoers who are currently underserved by a downtown area starved for screens.

The Film Center will eventually (pending the raising of $7 million or so) comprise four screens, with major upgrades to the big auditorium and ancillary facilities. Current live performance and rehearsal space will be replaced with film-exhibition components designed to provide better options for movie fans.

"We're a film organization, and at the end of the day our mission is to show as much film as we possibly can, outside of the two weeks of the festival," said J. Andrew Greenblatt, executive director of the Philadelphia Film Society, which organizes and operates the festival. "I want it to be all film all the time. When people think about film, we want them to think about coming here."

Incentives to do so will come in the form of improved technology, leading to a wider range of choices and offerings. The main auditorium (450 seats) will be outfitted with 4K projection and 70 mm capability, along with the standard 35 mm projection. The black box theater will be converted into a facility for community films. Two new screens will also be constructed, described as "VIP Microtheaters" with reclining seats and digital projection, in what was the old performing arts rehearsal space. These changes will in part enable added programs and support for local filmmakers, and educational programs for local students, who can exhibit and edit movies on site.

"With 70 mm and 35 mm, we can do those retro movies that no one else can do, and celebrate those classic movies in a way that no one else can" Greenblatt said. "As someone who runs a film organization, it upsets me that if I want to watch a reissued 2001 [in 70 mm], I would have to go to Silver Spring, Md., or New York. There should be a place in Philly for that, and now there will be."

The timetable for Film Center renovations depends on the pace of fund-raising, but there will be more good news for Philadelphia moviegoers in the short term. An AMC complex will open in November 2019 at the Fashion District development on the site of the former Gallery shopping mall. AMC plans at least eight screens, including two auditoriums with large-format capability, and one with advanced Dolby sound set-up. Together with Landmark theaters and the Roxy (which will stay as is), these projects would give downtown Philadelphia a screening footprint more in line with its size of the market.

"We're the fifth-largest city in the country. Yet in New York, you have more screens on a single city block," Greenblatt said.

The new Film Center will retain its role as the focus of the annual festival. This year, it will host most of the festival's Centerpiece Screenings, where audiences can get a sneak peek at some of this year's Oscar contenders, and engage in Q&As with film directors. Hedges will appear with the addiction drama Ben Is Back (starring son Lucas and Julia Roberts), Joel Edgerton with Boy Erased (Oct. 21), about gay conversion therapy; Jason Reitman with his Gary Hart drama The Front Runner (Oct. 23); and Paul Dano's Wildlife (also Oct. 23), about a marriage dissolving seen through the eyes of a teen boy. Other Centerpiece Screenings include Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar frontrunner Roma, about the middle class in Mexico; Barry Jenkins' Moonlight followup If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin's novel; Green Book from Peter Farrelly (!) starring Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali as a famed classical pianist chauffeured around the South by bouncer Viggo Mortenson; and Steve McQueen's Widows, based on a British TV series about women who take up the mantle of their criminal husbands after the men are killed.

Also featured at the Film Center will be the missing-in-action Kevin Hart drama Upside (Oct. 22), made a few years ago as a movie that marked the comedian's foray into drama. A  remake of the French classic Intouchables, the movie was made under the Weinstein Co. banner, and it fell into legal limbo when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the company slipped into bankruptcy. Issues of ownership and distribution have been settled, and now the film is slated for a January release. Festivalgoers will get an early look, and a first look at the movie in its current form, Greenblatt said. Hart's movie has been reedited since emerging from its legal entanglement.

Upside (shot on sound stages in Delaware County) is one of several films with local roots. There is a Greater Philadelphia program  featuring works from Philadelphia-area directors including  Nathaniel Kahn (the art documentary The Price of Everything); Charles Stone III (the Kensington comedy Zeroes); and Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry's rock-star portrait starring Elisabeth Moss.

The closing night film (Oct. 26, though the fest actually runs for a couple of more days) is Olivia Lichtenstein's documentary Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me, a screening that Greenblatt said will feature a musical performance with a vocalist yet to be announced. Additional programs include American independents, documentaries, animated movies, foreign-language, and international films (special attention to new  French and Nordic films). The festival's popular Feast  program (movies about food) will return, along with the Sight and Sound slate of music-related films, and the Graveyard Shift, featuring horror, action, suspense, and the "downright weird." For tickets and info, visit