Twenty-six years ago in a basement theater in Old City, Bill Ostroff and his friends held FirstGlance, Philadelphia’s first independent film festival. The event has since developed into a bicoastal organization, hosting more than 50 festivals.
“Me and a few friends of mine had basically been doing a small nonprofit theater company,” said Ostroff, a 1993 film and video production alumnus and founder and director of FirstGlance Film Festival. “I was considered the film guy, and we weren’t really doing anything filming. So we came up with the idea of ‘Let’s do a little film festival and see if we can make something of it.’”
FirstGlance’s Philadelphia festival will be held from Oct. 5-8 at PFS Bourse Theaters in Old City, just a block from where the festival launched in 1996. It marks FirstGlance’s first screening in Philadelphia since 2019 when they pivoted to hybrid screenings in the suburbs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ostroff moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and brought the festival with him. He established a second annual festival in L.A., making FirstGlance one of the only independent bicoastal film festivals.
Since his move, Andrea DiFabio has taken on some of the coordination for the Philadelphia festival, becoming marketing director for FirstGlance. DiFabio handles all communication for the festival and assists with venue rentals in Philadelphia.
“I first got involved with FirstGlance as a volunteer,” said DiFabio, a 1996 radio, television and film alumna. “My background was in marketing and public relations and at the time, I was an at-home mom not working anymore. And it was an opportunity for me to get back into the film world and the marketing world so I volunteered.”
DiFabio has been involved with FirstGlance for more than 20 years. She loves her work because of the opportunity it gives her to collaborate with a diverse group of filmmakers and support independent artists, she said.
“It’s really a labor of love, I think,” DiFabio said. “I just really enjoy working with the independent filmmakers. A lot of them put their heart and souls and personal financing into the film, so they’re really dedicated to the stories that they want to tell.”
Ostroff shares DiFabio’s passion for FirstGlance and maintains an active role in the planning of each of the company’s film festivals despite the large commitment.
Ostroff is the first to watch every film submitted for each festival because he thinks it’s important for a festival’s director to be involved in the process.
Besides, he’s not one to pass up an opportunity to watch a movie.
“I love watching movies,” Ostroff said. “I mean, I watch thousands and thousands of movies a year and that doesn’t even include the ones that I watch for FirstGlance. Half the time I’m doing work there’s a movie on in the background. I think over these years, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what’s good and what’s not, what works for FirstGlance and what doesn’t.”
Submissions for each festival start roughly six months before the screening. Ostroff decides which films move on to the selection committee, which is made up of eight to 10 people, who then suggest the films they enjoyed for nomination.
“We don’t really take into account until after who the filmmaker is, we just look for great content from wherever it comes from,” Ostroff said. “We look for great stories.”
After watching all the films, Ostroff and the committee select those that fit together or have a common theme to include in the festival’s program. This year’s Philadelphia festival features short films, documentaries, web series, student-directed projects and musical videos.
Three 2022 film and media arts alumni Ken Sogabe, Trevor Allem and Conner White’s senior thesis film, 6:16, is one of the films featured at the festival. The short was nominated for Best Cinematography, Breakout Performance and Best Shot in Philly – Narrative.
Sogabe, 6:16’s producer, decided to submit the film to FirstGlance after hearing about the festival through his internship at the Greater Philadelphia Film Festival.
The short depicts a couple’s struggle with addiction when their friend overdoses on drugs that they provided at their house. The couple has to decide if they should risk arrest to get help for their friend. They eventually take their friend to the hospital, but, still fearing arrest, one of the characters decides to dump the character who overdoses on the side of the road.
Situations like these are sometimes covered by the Good Samaritan Law, which protects someone who calls 911 for an overdose who is also under the influence or in possession of small amounts of drugs. However, this protection is not extended if the caller is the one who supplied the patient with drugs.
The idea of the film is that, when something is happening, it should just be about help and not arresting anybody, said Allem, the film’s director and writer.
Ostroff puts special care into cultivating an environment that supports the festival’s filmmakers. He wants to give platforms to independent and student artists while accurately representing the filmmaker’s creative vision.
“We’re also filmmakers, so we want the filmmakers to feel at home and enjoy their time and have a good experience and come out going, ‘You know, that was a great screening,’” Ostroff said.
Ostroff has no plans of stepping into a more passive role at FirstGlance. His love for movies and desire to support independent filmmakers continues driving him in his work at the organization.
“As long as I’m alive and can watch and program movies, FirstGlance should still be around,” Ostroff said.