Northern Liberties fade-out: Film festival sets screenings in new venues

    The Philadelphia Independent Film Festival began Wednesday, featuring experimental shorts, alternative feature dramas, and documentaries.

    Five years ago, the festival began in a renovated brick warehouse in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. The company that runs the festival, Media Bureau Inc. moved out last week.

    Media Bureau was a Northern Liberties pioneer. The company bought the old warehouse on Fourth Street 14 years ago, when the neighborhood was full of similar post-industrial warehouses that were vacant and, more importantly, cheap.

    The scrappy company, producing websites and high-definition video, renovated the 12,000-square-foot building into a hive of soundstages, lounges, offices, and screening rooms. It had been a well-known crash pad for visiting musicians, artists, and filmmakers.

    It’s harder to get away with that now. The neighborhood has gentrified, and rising rents mean less adventurous business plans.

    “Media Bureau represents a time when commercial diversity was the thing,” said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. “Most businesses in Northern Liberties were unusual. Now the challenge is to bring in businesses like that, or to keep the ones we have.”

    Media Bureau owner, Benjamin Barnett, sold that building earlier this year, and had a massive porch sale before moving out last Friday. He plans to grow the business, just not physically.

    Ironically, the year the Independent Film Festival finds itself homeless is the same year audiences are expected to double. Film screenings will be scattered in several, more traditional spaces, such as the Franklin Institute, the National Constitution Center, and the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street. The films are matched to the location.

    “You have something more politically oriented at the Constitution Center. At the Franklin Institute, we’ll have more drama, local features, where it’s a big deal for a local filmmaker to premiere their film at the Franklin Institute,” said Barnett, sitting in the 19th-century chapel of the First Unitarian Church, the festival headquarters. “Whereas in the chapel here, we have more avant-garde films, science fiction, something that would lend more to this gothic architecture.”

    Barnett’s next big idea for Media Bureau is a live, Washington, D.C.-based syndicated radio program and website called Take Action News and, produced in partnership with a Philadelphia nonprofit, Empowerment Group.

    Barnett says the business model has shifted away from in-house production to partnering with third-party studio spaces. He is not in a hurry to find new digs for his company.

    Philadelphia Independent Film Festival screenings are scheduled through Sunday. 

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