Billboard

Billboard

Like many Lehigh Valley residents, Zeke Zelker remembers the three men camped on a Whitehall Township billboard in the early 1980s for a radio contest. “I remember going by there with my mom and wondering what they were doing and wondering what was going on at the radio station,” he says. “I have always thought that what goes on behind the scenes of something is a lot more interesting.”

It’s no surprise, then, that “Billboard,” Zelker’s latest film, focuses on fictional Pennsylvania radio station WTYT 960, which protagonist Casey Lindeweiler inherits from his father. Finding the station on brink of financial collapse, Casey decides to host a billboard-sitting contest in which four people will live on a catwalk in front of a billboard for the chance of winning a mobile home. The film follows Casey as he finds himself faced with relentless attacks from his competition, the local authorities, the media, and Mother Nature, and struggles to keep his father’s legacy alive and stay independent.

“A lot of the story came out of my own challenges being an entrepreneur,” says Zelker, who wrote, produced, and directed the film under the banner of his Easton production company, iDream Machine. “It’s more about entrepreneurs, the little guy trying to succeed against all the things going against him.”

Zelker started working on the script about 20 years ago and has been working on the project full time for the past 10 years. “There have been different iterations of the script,” he notes. “We did an interactive play, a web series, the film. It’s been an ongoing project.”

“Billboard” is more than just a movie. It’s what Zelker calls a “cine·exerience.” In conjunction with the film, which opens in the Lehigh Valley, New York, and Philadelphia on April 5, Zelker and his team created a virtual WTYT 960, which parallels the radio station in the movie and has been drawing an online listenership for years, and a 25-episode digital web series, “The Billboard Sitters,” which focuses on the four contestants.  A regionally staged interactive play, loosely based on the web series, in which the audience and characters interact on social media, preceded the movie and series in 2013.

“I try to build up the entire story world, and make it authentic,” Zelker says. “People who work in radio who have seen the movie say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you nailed that on the head.’ Having the radio station for years helped with that.”  The various forms of media also enable audience members to dive deeper into the story world and add “a whole other level of promotion,” he notes.

Zelker began experimenting with cine·experience, also known as transmedia, as he watched the standard film market fracture and the streaming service market grow. An early adopter of things digital, the great-great-grandson of Dorney Park’s founder “started to think of the story world the way I think of an amusement park. You have your entertainment, or amusement, like the rides, then around them, the games of chance, the food. Taking the idea of the carnival midway and taking into the film business is what I did with ‘Billboard.’”

All told, the creation of the overall project involved more than 2,000 people, many of them local.

The film, which stars John Robinson, Heather Matarazzo, Eric Roberts, Leo Fitzpatrick, Darlene Cates, and Oakes Fegley, was shot entirely in the Lehigh Valley. “We built a billboard in the sales lot of Rothrock on 15th Street. The radio station was the LCCC radio station. We filmed at various restaurants. You will recognize something. I definitely showed off the Lehigh Valley,” Zelker says.

The movie, which will be shown locally at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas at SteelStacks, will go into wider distribution later in the month. It will be available for digital download in July. 

To follow the cine·experience, visit billboardmovie.com, wtyt960.com, facebook.com/BillboardMovie, instagram.com/billboardmovie.


ZEKE ZELKER

Zeke Zelker didn’t always plan to be a filmmaker. But after a friend asked him for some help on a project, he was hooked. He went to grad school at Syracuse University to study filmmaking, then returned home. “I moved back to the Valley in 1996 and made my first film in 1997. I started my company by refinancing my Jeep.”

Since then, he and iDream Machine have produced a number of feature films, including “InSearchOf,” “Body Mind Change,” “Loggerheads” and “Pandemic 1.0,” the first transmedia project featured at Sundance.

“It’s a challenge to film here,” he admits. “It’s more expensive. You have to bring in the cast and crew, house them, provide transportation.” And while Pennsylvania offers a tax credit to entice filmmakers to the state, “You have to have money in the bank to get the credit,” he says, adding that the program is not meant for smaller companies, with less cash flow.

Not all of Zelker’s films are set locally. “But I try to bring some aspect of the production to the Valley,” he says. The company also does commercial, real estate, wedding, arts events, and education projects, including Art Wars and Art Spark.

“I came home to do this, to make movies, to show the Lehigh Valley off to the world. I moved back home to make a difference.”

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