The 25,000-resident city off Route 1 in Union County is hardly a household name in the world of filmmaking. But over the last three years, it’s been home to the Rahway International Film Festival, a rapidly expanding event that showcases independent movies made not only by directors, writers and actors from New Jersey but also across the globe.
The festival will celebrate its third straight year this weekend, with three days of screenings, seminars and more at Hamilton Stage for the Performing Arts in downtown Rahway. The event runs Friday, Aug. 28 through Sunday, Aug. 30.
“I know people who live down street form the theater who don’t know about it,” says Gina Marie Rodriguez, the festival’s founder and director. “But we have amped up marketing. And I do believe we are doing something very positive for New Jersey filmmakers and filmmakers around the country and the world.
“We’re really just trying to bring people together to create a community of filmmakers and artists,” the 27-year-old Colonia native adds.
New Jersey actually has a sea of film festivals each year. The most famous is the New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and there have been similar events held everywhere from Montclair to Asbury Park to Trenton to Cape May.
But Rahway’s evolution has been impressively brisk. It started three years ago when Rodriguez — who worked as a house manager at Hamilton Stage — pitched the idea to her boss, Samson Steinman, then the executive director of the arts center.
“I just recently started filmmaking myself,” said Rodriguez, who is primarily an actor and writer but has directed two short films. “And because of that, I decided I wanted to give a voice to my own films and to other filmmakers. I know what a struggle it is to get your work seen. I happened to be lucky enough to have a beautiful venue. “
Samson approved, and the festival began as a single-night event in 2013. But a lot has changed since then.
Last year, the event expanded to a full day. This year, it ballooned to three days and will include full-length features for the first time. There will be 30 films shown in all — 21 shorts and seven features.
The filmmakers hail from all over the state and country, and across 12 different nations. Awards are given for best film, actor, director, screenplay, etc. — for both short and feature films. There’s also an audience choice trophy.
GianCarlo Fernandez is one of this year’s hopefuls, with a film he directed and co-wrote called “28-Minute Epic.”
But don’t be fooled by that description.
“It’s a very misleading title,” the 31-year-old Edison resident says. “The movie is not 28 minutes long. It’s 110 minutes.”
It’s also got quite the story.
“The movie is about two guys who get fired from a porn shop adult bookstore, Fernandez explains, “and they decide to become superheroes for hire after accidentally saving someone’s life.”
Fernandez says the idea came from co-writer and co-star Rocco Petrullo, whom he met while studying film at Montclair State University.
But turning it into an actual movie took a major leap from Fernandez, who has wanted to make films since his teenage years. He quit his job as a creative software teacher at Apple and moved back in with his mother in 2013 to focus on “Epic.”
“I took out my 401K money, and I said: ‘I want to make a movie,’” Fernandez recalls.
Though he had directed animated commercials and music videos, “Epic” was his first feature. And he made it on a budget that would make Ed Wood proud: $4,100. The money was raised through the crowdfunding site indieGogo — a place where friends, family members, fans and strangers donate funds to help creative projects get off the ground.
Fernandez and his crew did all the editing themselves. Manny David scored the film and mixed its sound. And the team begged to use shooting locations for free (they had to pay for only two spots.
“The rest of the money was used for food and costumes,” Fernandez explains. “We had cameras. We just used what we had.”
The goal is to get the film screened at ComicCon in New York in October. “We want to show we made an entire feature-length film for $4,100,” Fernandez says.
But first, there’s Rahway — the first time Fernandez’s work will be shown at a film festival.
“I think it’s important to showcase the talent around here,” he says of the event. “I can’t believe how many people live so close to me that I didn’t know worked in film.”
In addition to the movies themselves, the event features four seminars on filmmaking led by industry professionals.
And there’s also a Women in Film lifetime achievement award. Last year’s winner was actress Piper Perabo, who grew up in Toms River. This year’s is Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, an Edison native. (Perabo filmed a video thank-you shown at the festival last year. The organizers have reached out to Sarandon’s reps and are awaiting a response.)
The female aspect of the festival is key. Rodriguez runs the event with childhood friend and marketing whiz Stacy Ignacio — making Rahway one of the few women-led film fests.
“We know women are underrepresented in the film industry,” explains Ignacio, a 28-year-old Colonia native who went to Rutgers University with Rodriguez and now works in online digital marketing in New York City. “We made it a part of our mission to include an equal ration of films made by male and female filmmakers. Our lineup this year sticks to that.”
And the event also highlights something else: the blossoming arts scene in Rahway.
In addition to the festival, there are often rock shows featuring original New Jersey bands at the Rail House bar and restaurant and both Hamilton Stage and the main stage at the Union County Performing Arts Center often feature live music, comedy and drama from local and well-known acts. Additionally, Steinman, the theater’s former executive director, is now the city’s mayor.
“The hope is people realize the Rahway arts district is growing,” Rodriguez says. “It has been getting much stronger in the past five years or so. It’s definitely becoming the place to be.”