The Co-Founder of the Garden State Film Festival tackles the Hollywood film industry and brings it back to its roots: New Jersey

by Lindsey Blair • Photos By Robert Nuzzie

New Jersey native Diane Raver tells it like it is—and makes no apologies in the process. A force in the film industry (she co-founded the Garden State Film Festival) and the first woman to own her own commercial production company in New York, Raver’s go getter mentality has been a constant in her professional career.

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Raver’s New Jersey roots are deep. She was born in Sea Girt, and her family has lived on the Jersey Shore for four generations.

“I pride myself on being a real Jersey Shore girl,” she said. “One that has contributed to this community.”

Raver’s soft-spoken voice may match Sea Girt’s small-town charm, but her passion for life booms, especially her love of the cinematic arts, which began as a child sitting in the wooden chairs of the Algonquin Movie House (now called the Algonquin Arts Theatre) in Manasquan during the 1950s and 1960s.

While a multitude of childhood memories play on a loop for Raver, the Algonquin, a staple weekend destination for her entire family, holds a special place.

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“Growing up, the local movie house was the anchor of any community,” she explained. “You couldn’t see a film at home; you had to go to the local movie house. I spent much of my childhood mesmerized by the silver screen at the Algonquin.”

After graduating from Philadelphia University, Raver took a sales position at Eye View Films, a New York City production company for national commercials. This first job in the film business was all it took—Raver knew she had found her calling.

During her time at Eye View, she represented a man who would change her life forever: an award-winning director and cinematographer, the late M. Carroll Raver. “He was six foot three, and the most breathtaking man I’d ever seen in my life,” she recalled with adoration. “He really was a beautiful specimen.

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When I first met him, my knees buckled.” A year later, they were married.

It was the late ’80s, and the power couple quickly became a presence in the film industry. M. Carroll Raver directed commercials for Hertz, General Motors, the U.S. Army, BMW, among other clients. For Diane, however, things still weren’t quite right. Eventually, tired of what she felt was mistreatment in the industry, she decided she needed to make a change.

“I’m a girl from the Jersey Shore. I wasn’t used to being cheated, and it made me mad!” she said with fervor. “My late husband said, ‘You don’t have to feel cheated anymore; why don’t you start your own company?’ ” And so she did: The Madison Group, the first woman-owned commercial production company in New York.

There, Raver represented directors commissioned to do commercials for ad agencies, crossing paths with such bigwigs as Cliff Robertson, Telly Savalas, Geoffrey Holder, Michael Learned, Wilford Brimley,Lauren Bacall, Lauren Hutton, and Tim Conway.

Raver found herself immersed in the fast-paced life of the City film industry, but it wasn’t until she joined her husband on a commercial shoot in Europe that she realized something else was tugging at her heart. She was relaxing at a café in Cannes on the French Riviera, sipping a cappuccino and gazing at the Claude Debussy Theatre, when she asked a simple question: Why didn’t New Jersey have a statewide event like the Cannes Film Festival?

“New Jersey was the birthplace of the entire film industry,” she said in retrospect, “and yet we’re thought of as an appendage to New York City…and we’re not.”

Raver didn’t yet have the answer to this question, but when the couple returned to New York, they decided to move their family back to Sea Girt—where Raver’s love affair with film began. One day at the local grocery store, she ran into the late actor Robert Pastorelli. That’s when the life-changing idea of creating a film festival for New Jersey came back with force.

“I remember standing there and thinking, ‘I wonder if I should say something?’ Then I thought, ‘What the heck; I used to be somebody in this business.’ ”

She knew this was her chance. Raver made small talk with Pastorelli up and down the food aisles. While they were in line at the checkout counter, she invited him to a dinner party she was having that night. He attended. And, just like that, the Garden State Film Festival was born.

Raver and Pastorelli launched the festival in 2002 in Manasquan, then moved it to Asbury Park the following year.

A nonprofit organization, it celebrates the independent film
genre and provides a forum where independent filmmakers can show their work. It showcases a wide variety of film, video, and
animated works, and also provides public educational programs
given by industry leaders.

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With a desire to help establish an artistic and economic resurgence in Asbury Park, the festival became a driving force behind the city’s ongoing renaissance.

In 2011, Raver won the Alice Guy-Blaché Award. Named after the first woman film director, it pays homage to women in the industry. Raver was the first New Jerseyan to win the award, whose past recipients include legends like Parker Posey
and Lee Grant.

In 2012, The Garden State Film Festival won a Tourism Achievement Award from the Monmouth Ocean Development Council, in recognition of its significant contribution to improving the economy of the two-county area through tourism. By 2013, more than 35,000 people were attending the Asbury Park event, which generated some $800,000 in revenue for local businesses. Over the years, industry notables attending include Glenn Close, Frank Vincent, Batman producer Michael Uslan, Austin Pendleton, Kurtwood Smith, Laura Dern, and Bebe Neuwirth. Now held in Atlantic City, the festival showcases more than 150 independent films annually over four days.

“Atlantic City has the infrastructure to put on such a worldclass event,” Raver said. “They welcomed us with open arms.”

As Raver looked back on a very long and well-earned list of accomplishments, she made it clear that her main source of inspiration came from her late husband.

“He made all the difference in the world. He really encouraged me and gave me the courage to grow into myself,” she said.

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“You know, he was my guy, and he gave me a great life. Up, down, and all around … but he gave me a great life.”