Bethlehem got a little star power last year when actors Corbin Bernsen, Taylor Spreitler and friends scoured the city for spots to shoot their "passion project," a coming-of-age movie titled "Bethlehem."
They said they wanted authenticity and revised the script to add shoots at landmarks like The Cup ice cream parlor, Liberty High School and SteelStacks, making Bethlehem just as big as any character in the story inspired by the 2008 Liberty football team.
They promised locals would be extras and teased their 5,941 Facebook fans with news that the hunky young actor Ian Harding, of ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars" fame, would play the obstinate uncle/bar owner in the movie.
But the production crews haven't arrived and the Facebook page has been silent for months. Producers blame delays in funding and problems with scheduling actors, challenges that go hand in hand with independent films.
Still, the cast is committed and the team has made enough progress in fundraising to put the film on pace to be shot in April, director Matt McInnis said in an interview.
"We were hesitant to say anything because the last thing we want to do is tell everybody we're coming and not tell them when," said McInnis, explaining the social media silence on the project this summer. "That gets old. But, internally, we have a plan."
In contrast to big-budget movies like "Transformers 2," part of which was shot in Bethlehem, independent films like "Bethlehem" are low on special effects and high on story. Big studios pass by these films because they can't make a big return on the investment without a megastar.
But the independent movement, energized in recent years by crowdfunding, cheaper production technology and new media platforms, takes on that niche.
The possibilities are fantastic — 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," reportedly shot on a $60,000 budget, earned $248.6 million at the box office after it was picked up by a big studio. But that's the exception, not the rule.
At the Sundance Film Festival this year, 118 feature films were selected from 4,057 feature films, half of which came from the United States. Nearly half of the 4,057 films were never released and never covered their costs, said Mitchell W. Block, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
Block said those who want to be a part of independent movies shouldn't think of them as investments but as support for projects they believe in.
Bernsen's Home Theater Films, which has taken on "Bethlehem," has a recent track record of getting such projects done, targeting specific fan bases and streamlining the movie-making process.
It has done this for other video-on-demand movies, including "25 Hill," a 2011 flick about the All-American Soapbox Derby Race in Akron, Ohio. The film, which Bernsen wrote and directed, generated $150,000 for the historic derby, which was in the midst of deep financial woes, according to published reports.
And that's the hook for grass-roots fundraising, said Leena Pendharkar, visiting assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television in Los Angeles. She said people back independent films because they love the filmmakers, actors or the idea of investing in a story they truly believe should be told.
"That's what drives independent cinema," Pendharkar said. "People love the art of it and seeing different types of movies that won't be financed by the big studios, which now are largely commercial ventures. They're in the business of making money, and that's not the case with many independent films."
For director McInnis, the passion for "Bethlehem" began before he set foot in its namesake city. A Vancouver native, the 30-year-old had a roommate from the Lehigh Valley who displayed pictures from Bethlehem.
McInnis immediately thought of Bethlehem when he had an idea for a movie about a high school baseball player who'd just lost his father. Originally set in the 1980s, when Bethlehem Steel underwent two massive layoffs, Bethlehem would be the perfect backdrop to a story about loss and perseverance.
McInnis pitched the idea to his friend, scriptwriter Jordan Ross of Bucks County, and budgeted $75,000 for a film shot outside of Los Angeles with a mix of B-roll — supplemental footage — from Bethlehem. They tried using a crowdfunding site to raise money for it and brought on their friend Spreitler, who plays a teen on ABC Family's "Melissa & Joey," as a co-producer.
"I come from a small town in Mississippi and like the idea of a small town rallying around each other," Spreitler said. "I love the whole aspect. It hit close to home for me."
The three threw around names of who could be the coach. Craig T. Nelson, who won an Emmy for his role in "Coach"? Bernsen, who played a one-time star third basemen in the film "Major League"? Spreitler volunteered that she had done a movie with Bernsen, and they sent him the script.
That's when the idea of an independent film on a shoestring budget changed.
Bernsen was interested in the film for his production company. Home Theater Films, which describes itself as making "smart family films," showcases communities willing to back the projects and targets distribution to the home theater and video-on-demand platforms.
Shooting in Bethlehem was now a possibility. Ross was contacted over Instagram by Bekah Rusnock, who worked then in Bethlehem's economic development department. She stumbled on a promotional shot of stadium lights with the hashtag #Bethlehem.
Rusnock talked up the idea of shooting the film in the redeveloping steel town, and Bernsen, Spreitler, Ross and McInnis arranged a weekend visit last year during Celtic Classic.
They toured the local haunts: St. Michael's Cemetery, which was immortalized by Depression-era photographer Walker Evans; the historic downtown, home to what is billed as the country's oldest bookstore; and the SteelStacks campus built from the ruins of Bethlehem Steel.
Spreitler said she had a blast at the Tapas on Main restaurant and joked to her city tour guide, Rusnock, that they should sneak into the old steel mill — which she quickly added they did not do.
The film team decided to move the movie to present day and make it about football instead of baseball, a nod to the 2008 Liberty football team that won the state championship. Instead of a steel crisis, the script centers on the young player's story in a town that survived the loss of Bethlehem Steel. The catch phrase: "Stronger than Steel."
In some ways, McInnis mused, the delay has helped strengthen the script. There's still money to raise, but he's prepared to cut the budget to keep the filming on schedule.
James Greilick, a producer at Home Theater Films, said the company hasn't lost interest in "Bethlehem" over the last year.
"We at Home Theater Films in conjunction with Matt McInnis and Jordan Ross are continuing to work on the film 'Bethlehem,' which was announced last year," Greilick said in an email. "This is an exciting project with a great story, talented cast and crew that we feel will be a perfect community project for Bethlehem."
Spreitler said she remains committed to the project and suggested she may visit Bethlehem soon to drum up some excitement for the movie.
"I love Bethlehem," Spreitler said. "Go Hurricanes!"