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Happy to Be Here: Film festival joins New Hope’s successes

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For more than a hundred years New Hope has been an incubator, a place where untried creative people come to nurture their arts.

That’s what Doug Whipple knew when he started the New Hope Film Festival. Although he was raised in Bucks County he’d lived around the country and abroad for a few years but he had an idea and he executed it in Bucks County. Starting with few resources, he announced he would invite film-makers to compete in his fledgling competition.

In the summer of 2008, Whipple met California-based Thom Michael Mulligan, Mulligan, an indie film producer and actor who recounted his frustrations on the film festival circuit. Emerging filmmakers and script writers, Mulligan said, needed better opportunities to show their films. With Mulligan’s encouragement, and believing New Hope was an ideal location for such an event, Whipple took the initiative to establish a private arts organization that became active on January 1, 2009.

He invited a group of artists to collaborate with him – the late Marianne Speiser, a musician who became director of communications, local photographer Danny Sailor, and Mulligan, who is now director of submissions. Whipple engaged Hollywood screenwriter Mark Rosenthal, a strong supporter of New Hope, to be a festival advisor.

Whipple arranged to use the New Hope Arts Center in the center of town as a venue for the 2009 film festival and that’s been the theater almost every year ever since. When I saw Whipple after the conclusion of this year’s festival, chairs were still set up and the space that also serves as an art gallery with an open floor, was transformed as a welcoming theater – an impressive unadorned room, with its broad polished wood floor, ceiling lights and stage.

”In an often frenzied and outrageous era, this festival is a refuge, a place where you can pause and go deeper,” the film festival website says. “Here, it’s about art. Allow yourself to slow down and savor it.”

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Whipple said last week after winding down the 2022 season. “But we’ve held our own for the 14th season.”

This year, the festival consisted of a combination of live and virtual events. In 2020 the festival was totally online and the number of submissions dwindled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whipple said that 2021 was difficult with two venues and the providing necessary precautions. Submission reached a peak of about 600 before the pandemic -– this year the number climbed, post pandemic, to 350.

“It was wildly successful,” the founder said. Film-makers who couldn’t make the trip could see their creations on the big screen.

The film festival, Whipple assured me, was never meant for maximum profit, it has been rather an asset for the community and for artists as a venue for their productions. “It’s been a big investment,” Whipple said. “We’ve been upgrading the videos’ quality every year.” Funds collected from entry fees, advertising and theater admissions are available for investments in new equipment like the big screen, cameras, speakers, chairs and the Blu-ray player. And the festival pays for its venue space.

The festival is not a nonprofit. “Most festivals,” Whipple said, “are funded but we pay our own way. We earn every $15 we make.”

Submissions have grown over 13 years along with the festival’s reach. While most submissions came from nearby, today, about 10 percent come from the local area – the Bucks County region and New York – and 25 percent come from around the world, including Germany and Belgium. This year there were submissions from Canada and Australia.

And a festival needs an audience. This one is ready-made with film-makers and their families and friends attending but in New Hope, where celebrations are always welcome, the film festival has faithful local followers and local businesses support it.

Whipple, who majored in East Asian studies at Washington and Lee University, has written two novels and he still has a foot in the medical industry. The film festival is a part-time enterprise and he is pleased at the way it has developed.

“The structure is here,” Whipple said, confident that the festival is a success. As the festival’s experience has grown, expectations for the number and quality of the films continues to grow.


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