Zeke Zelker’s ‘Billboard’ having its world premiere at Nineteenth St. Theatre
A locally-produced film, inspired by a 1982 billboard-sitting contest in Whitehall Township, will have its world premiere, 7 p.m. Nov. 1, Nineteenth Street Theatre, Allentown.
Lehigh Valley filmmaker Zeke Zelker’s “Billboard” will be the first film shown in the newly renovated theater which reopened after a one-year $5.5-million capital campaign project.
“Billboard” a fictionalized account of the real-life contest held by a local radio station in which three men camped on a billboard visible from Route 22 in the vicinity of the MacArthur Road overpass to try to win a mobile home.
The feature film was produced in the Lehigh Valley by Zelker with more than 2,000 working on the project.
“I’m excited and proud to be screening ‘Billboard’ at Civic,” Zelker says. “I wanted to share the film with the community that helped make it.”
Zelker, an Emmaus native who lives in Forks Township, wrote, directed and produced “Billboard,” which was originally to screen for one night only at Civic. Demand for tickets was so great that nine more days of screenings were added. The film will continue through Nov. 10 at Civic.
“I am so proud of this film and the dedicated team who helped craft it,” says Zelker. “I know that I like what I’ve created and, at the end of the day, this is my legacy and I better work damn hard to make it a good one.”
Zelker says that after “Billboard” concludes its opening run in Allentown, the film embarks on a tour that kicks off in Lewisburg Nov 12, and will have one-night screenings in Harrisburg, West Chester, Philadelphia, and the Poconos before being released nationally in April.
“We will be taking the film to various cities and towns throughout the state to celebrate Pennsylvania film-making,” Zelker says.
“I’m very proud to be from Pennsylvania and we want to share the film with those who will be able to relate with it most before we take it national in the spring.”
Zelker says he has no plans to take “Billboard” to film festivals, but rather wants to take it “directly to the people.”
Also on Nov. 1, Zelker will release a 25-episode web series, “The Billboard Sitters,” at billboardmovie.com, that will focus on the four contestants in the billboard-sitting contest.
He says the project, which he first started working on in 1998, was envisioned as a multiplatform media project.
“It’s been baked into the DNA of this project since its inception,” Zelker says. “I always wanted to tell the story through the eye of a radio station. So, we created one.”
In 2011, Zelker launched WTYT960.com, a virtual radio station that has more than 1,000 bands on it from 49 states and 22 countries. WTYT 960 is also the radio station in the film.
He says he wanted to tell the story from two perspectives.
“One side is how the four contestants live on the billboard and the other focuses on the man who created the contest,” Zelker says.
The film and web series were shot at different times, with different crews and employ different styles of film-making.
“The two pieces of work are very different and that’s intentional,” Zelker says.
The film centers around a struggling radio station that decides to host a billboard-sitting contest in an effort to drive up ratings. Contestants set up tents on the billboard in hopes of winning $96,000 and a mobile home.
The story is inspired by radio station WSAN-AM’s 1982 contest in which three men tried to outlast each other through the winter on a billboard at MacArthur Road and Route 22 to win an $18,000 modular home.
The billboard-sitting contest ended up lasting nearly nine months and made national and international news as a symbol of the United States’ economic struggles.
The “Billboard” cast includes Eric Roberts, who starred in NBC’s “Heroes” (2006-2010); Darlene Cates, who was seen in the movie, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (1993); Heather Matarazzo of the movie, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), and two members of Lehigh Valley’s own Barrymore family of actors, father and son, Michael Fegley and Oakes Fegley (“Pete’s Dragon,” 2016).
Zelker says that, although the film has gotten a lot of support from the community, he and his wife Elaine financed 90 percent of the film themselves.
“Elaine and I worked hard and my family has sacrificed a lot for my vision,” he says.
“I think the struggle to make the film and web series affected the story line in a very authentic way. They are much more profound than the stories I originally set out to tell.”
“Billboard” is the fourth film that Zelker has produced and made in the Lehigh Valley. His previous films include “Affairs” (1997), “A.K.A.: It’s a Wiley World!” (2003) and “InSearchOf” (2009).
Zelker has worked on films that he didn’t write and direct, including: producer, “Fading” (2003); co-producer, “Loggerheads” (2005); associate producer, “Southern Belles” (2005); associate producer, “Just Like the Son” (2006), and co-producer, “Pandemic” (2011).
Next, Zelker plans to make a film based on the book “Adventure on a Dare,” written by Bethlehem native and adventurer Fritz Sprandel about the true story of his 1971 attempt to paddle a canoe from the Jersey Shore through the Panama Canal, on a dime bet.
Sprandel made headlines when he was jailed by Fidel Castro after he got off course and his canoe landed on a beach in Cuba.
Zelker says he also is “ready to go” on a film called “Love, Here,” about two afflicted people, one a child-advocate attorney, the other a ballet dancer. who break down each other’s barriers to fall in love.
Tickets: Civic Theater box office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943