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New film Billboard looks to change how people experience a film.
Directed by Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania native Zeke Zelker, Billboard is inspired by a radio contest from the 1980s where contestants sat on a billboard for weeks—and through it all, found how people, community, and success collide in often fascinating ways.
Check out the story below to learn more about the film and get tickets for the special preview screening in West Chester at Uptown! on Monday, November 26!
The Film: Dynamic Engagement
Billboard is more than a film—this is an experience.
“It’s not what people are expecting,” said Zeke. “There are a number of surprises and people will react in a variety of different ways.”
The story is inspired by a real billboard sitting contest that took place in Allentown, PA, in the early 1980s, an event that captivated a county in more ways than one. From the contestants who chose to sit on the billboard for weeks on end, to the community that watched, the entire scenario proved to be a fascinating ordeal—one worthy to explore further.
“I was always intrigued about why the contestants chose to be up there, why they stayed,” said Zeke. “I was more curious about the behind the scenes stuff more than the actual spectacle. I began working on the script 20 years ago after chatting with a friend about local stories, and then I actively started working on the production end of it ten years ago.”
Zeke has been hard at work making the film a reality. After diagramming the story and overall project in just a few hours, he began to experiment with a variety of projects to ensure the end result—Billboard—is exactly how he wanted it.
“I’m a believer in testing things, I call it story R&D, to see if they work before allocating resources to them,” said Zeke. “We’ve done script reads, shooting tests, live tests, screen tests, all to hone in on what is now Billboard. The project is the radio station, the 25 episode web series, the feature film, and live community events.”
It truly is a multimedia experience for the community. Everything about Billboard is interconnected—from the characters in the movie watching the live feed of the billboard sitters, to the songs playing in the station throughout the film being from bands on WTYT960.com, there are tons of ways for the audience to dive deeper into the story.
“I created our radio station, WTYT960.com, which has been the leaping off point for the project ever since,” added Zeke. “Bands from all over the world submit music to the site and we give them exposure and opportunities to share, learn and earn.”
After the the radio took off, the web series was next—the project being shot in a sales lot with a large constructed billboard.
“It was a challenge and we learned a lot of things that we then carried into the feature shoot,” said Zeke. “We shot the movie intensely over the course of another four weeks and did a number of pick-ups over the course of nine months. The story changed a lot from the original script which wasn’t working.”
This shifting of a innovative mindset is critical to meaningful creation.
“As a creator you need to be honest with yourself and to your audience,” offered Zeke. “If something isn’t working, fix it.”
"If you’ve ever tried something hard, tried to seize an opportunity, or have been an underdog, this movie is for you."
“I feel our story will resonate with a lot of people,” added Zeke. “People tell me its very authentic. If you’ve ever tried something hard, tried to seize an opportunity, or have been an underdog, this movie is for you.”
Almost 2,000 people worked on the project, but at the core of the team is a small group.
“Many of the people on the team are professionals at two jobs—like my master carpenter is also my post production sound designer,” said Zeke. “My editor was also my camera app, my DP is my colorist, and so on. I’m constantly teaching and empowering others who work with me. I could not have made this happen with my core team and the support of my family who have sacrificed a ton for my vision.”
That vision is finally coming to screens soon, and the audience will soon experience the legacy, survival, entrepreneurism, and opportunity showcased in the film, while exploring how media can influence a variety of community successes.
Hometown Pride: Creating Community
Zeke wanted to make sure he created a film for the community—and also share the final version of it before it is screened nationally.
“The PA screening tour is our way of showing the citizens of the commonwealth the movie before others get a chance to see it,” said Zeke. “We’re doing this to learn and share for when we release the film in April. We placed a number of PA-made products in the film, shot and posted the film entirely in the state, and used as much PA talent as we could.”
Zeke grew up in the Lehigh Valley, and he and his family have been part of the fabric of the community, and the local region, for many years.
“My great great grandfather started Dorney Park which is where my deep rooted pride for my hometown and state come from,” said Zeke. “I learned so much from my years at the Park, especially from my grandfather who helped build a lot of it.”
Working with an assortment of innovators and creators made its mark on Zeke—and solidified a foundation on which he could build something himself.
“The imagination and ingenuity it took to create something for the masses at the Park—I’m still in awe,” added Zeke. “It’s amazing the lessons I learned from working there. It also made me appreciate the work it takes to put on ‘the show.’ That’s why I think I focused more on the radio station for Billboard than I did the contest itself.”
In his mid twenties, Zeke discovered that a film career was the adventure he wanted to pursue. Zeke is now a critically acclaimed and award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur, and has a different, unique, approach to his craft. He calls it “cine-experiences.” This is reflected in Billboard, as the film does not just entertain, but it invites audiences to be part of the story, too, through intentional, meaningful engagement.
Zeke moved back to his hometown of Lehigh Valley to bring his imaginative outlook on filmmaking, hoping to positively impact the area.
“At first people thought I was nuts, but over time they have realized that it is possible as more production is happening in the Bethlehem area,” said Zeke. “Even though my next film is set in Washington, DC, I’ll be shooting ninety percent of it in the Valley.”
"I could not have made this happen with my core team and the support of my family who have sacrificed a ton for my vision."
Sneak Preview Tour & Tickets
While the feature launches nationally early 2019, there is a a lineup of local Pennsylvania sneak preview showings including one at Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester that you don’t want to miss!
Here is the planned showing schedule:
- Allentown, November 1 – 10th
- Lewisburg, November 11
- Harrisburg, November 12
- West Chester, November 26 – at Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (get tickets now!)
- Lancaster, November 27 –
- Philadelphia, December 5
People can go to billboardmovie.com for the screening schedule, location of showings, and links to purchase tickets. Get them before they sell out!