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A Dream for Atlantic City

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Atlantic City, NJ -- Dreams without passion are useless. That's fantasy. That's a waste of time.

Raised in the infamous North End, a section of Atlantic City blanketed with poverty and hopelessness, riddled with drugs and violence, young John Paxton saw up-close how quickly passion dies and dreams fade away. He saw it every day, everywhere in the North End. But John had two good parents and some good luck. At Rutgers University, then as a writer and a filmmaker, his dreams grew. Now John Paxton has returned to Atlantic City with a huge dream.

"The arts are a way out," his soft dark eyes burn with intensity, "my dream is to make a film and music festival in my hometown. This is about community, about place. It's not about money and fame. It's about making a bridge out for the kids."

The inaugural Atlantic City International Film and Music Festival was held from Wednesday to Sunday with venues in Bally's, Caesars, Harrahs, and Showboat Casinos. The number of attendees was not as large as hoped, the more than 80 films and nearly 20 musical groups varied in quality, the festival's organization made some mistakes, but this first festival was not about hitting a home. It was about laying a foundation. It was about the future.

2010-09-15-JohnPaxton_ACIFMF.jpg

"Next year," Paxton proclaimed at the Awards ceremony, "our festival will be bigger and better. This is just the beginning. The beginning to reinvigorate the arts and culture for young people who live in Atlantic City and who come to this city." Next year, Paxton went on to say, jazz will be added to the rock and hip-hop music. And later, possibly, a red carpet will be laid on the boardwalk with search lights beaming into the night sky for arriving guests. After all, this is Atlantic City.

Settings are important for film festivals. The Woodstock Film Festival utilizes the beautiful fall foliage of the Catskill Mountains, the Woods Hole Fest Film Festival offers popular Cape Cod during the summer. Both are excellent festivals enhanced by their locations. Sundance is in the snowy Rockies, which seems to only elevate the intensity of America's premier film festival. Prestigious Telluride is in the summer Rockies, the serene mountain scenery enhancing contemplation.

Atlantic City is about rolling the dice and jumping into the ocean. Atlantic City has an army of homeless beggars who hit the night boardwalk. Crime is rampant. The police union erected a billboard saying the resort was not safe. As for the glitter and the fun, they are locked in the mammoth self enclosed casinos -- fortresses in a dangerous city, hope surrounded by despair. The city's reputation can be summed up two words: greed and sleaze. This heavy materialism and pervasive plight makes Atlantic City a tough setting for a film and musical festival.

Falling into two soft cavernous chairs in the Blue Martini lounge, with slot machines pinging and panging on Bally's casino floor, John says much of the advice he has received has been negative. He ticks off a litany of reasons why others say he should not be doing what he is doing: "This is a gaming place ... people here aren't interested in cultural events ... there was a film festival before and it failed ... the town is downright dangerous..."

But his enthusiasm is not dampen, not in the least. And he has reasons. "Atlantic City is no longer the exclusive gambling center for the region," he points out. Suddenly there is a roar, probably from a craps table. "There is now gambling in Philadelphia, New York, Delaware. And there is online gambling. So Atlantic City can't survive on only gambling. It needs to capture new markets, it needs new events. A film and music festival can bring more people to Atlantic City."

John envisions visitors to Atlantic City in the morning going to the beach, after lunch seeing a movie at the festival, in the late afternoon hitting a casino, after dinner talking a stroll on the boardwalk and then listening to live music at the festival, and finally returning to the casino for some late night gambling. Beach and boardwalk and casino intermingled with films and music. And this would highlight Atlantic City as an entertainment hub that includes more than gambling, that includes the arts, while providing a forum for independent filmmakers and musicians to showcase their talents.

Since Atlantic City has more than 30 million visitors a year -- it's the fourth-largest destination stop in the United States, after Las Vegas, New York and Orlando -- John Paxton is betting a sliver of these millions want more than gambling and beach.

Not unexpectedly, our conversation weaves back to what fires John's passion: "the youth of Atlantic City ... the neighborhood I came from... the lack of viable alternatives for the kids... the power of art." His large body inches forward, eyes narrow, intensity jumps. "This will be a festival that is a bridge to a better world."

For more than three decades, since casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, the impoverished residents of this seaside resort have been waiting for a better life. For the vast majority, certainly for the poor and downtrodden in the North End, a better life has not arrived. With the lingering economic recession and the increased competition from regional gambling casinos, bad has turned to worse. Dreams are dying even faster. More youth are viewing crime as the only alternative. John Paxton, however, sees another way out. That is his dream. That is his passion. It's called the Atlantic City International Film and Music Festival.

Award Winners at first Atlantic City International Film and Music Festival

Outstanding Feature:
Apostles of Park Slope
Directed By Jason Cusato

Outstanding Short:
Touch
Directed By Jen McGowan

Best Animation:
The Lift
Directed By Robert Kohr

Best Student Film:
The Binding of Ishmael
Directed By Taofik Kolade

Best Horror Film:
Bereavement
Directed By Stevan Mena

Outstanding Documentary:
Streetball
Directed By Demetrius Wren

Homegrown Award Winner:
Ice Grill USA
Directed By Mark Bernardi & Greg Santarsiero

Best of Festival Award:
Ice Grill USA
Directed By Mark Bernardi & Greg Santarsiero