Evelyn McGee Colbert is a luminary in New Jersey’s arts scene. The Montclair resident has devoted her professional life to helping artists thrive while bringing entertainment and arts education to the Garden State.
McGee Colbert is president of the board of directors of Montclair Film, a community arts organization she cofounded with WNET-TV executive Bob Feinberg, with the support of her husband, the well-known television personality Stephen Colbert.
This month, the organization’s Montclair Film Festival will open its 12th annual event, an impressive achievement for any grassroots arts organization, let alone one that came of age in a tumultuous decade of pandemic shutdowns and the advent of streaming channels. Add to this an actors’ and writers’ strike that silenced Hollywood in the summer of 2023, and the past few years have been quite a ride.
Settling into a white leather booth at a quiet restaurant in Manhattan, McGee Colbert met with New Jersey Monthly to discuss this year’s festival and the arts in New Jersey. Possessing a soft-spoken, gracious air, McGee Colbert was quick to laugh, and sometimes sigh with exasperation, when sharing war stories, such as when Hurricane Ida nearly washed away Montclair Film’s premises. (“Our educational center was literally a bathtub.”) The grim Covid years disappeared audiences, forcing unconventional solutions for business owners, and camaraderie in the face of discouragement and fear.
In her role as president of the board of Montclair Film, McGee Colbert says her main responsibility is fundraising. “I walk around with a hat saying, ‘Please? Please?’” she says with a twinkle in her eye. More accurately, the evolution of Montclair Film has required her to wear many hats, including philanthropist, educator, entrepreneur, and champion of creative artists.
The yearly festival, born out of her love for community and the arts, has become a cultural darling throughout the state and a much anticipated highlight of the pre-Oscar season for New Jersey film aficionados—one that often attracts big names, like Martin Scorsese, who is set to appear in conversation with Stephen Colbert during the festival on October 27. One of the things that distinguishes it from other film festivals is that it’s not a vehicle for marketing films, but rather it’s a supportive, inclusive space for creative minds and audiences to connect.
“The festival—Montclair Film itself—is about nurturing artists’ voices,” McGee Colbert says, adding, “I can see us expanding in the future and having some sort of screenwriters’ lab…recognizing emerging voices.”
In this spirit, Montclair Film has expanded over the years to house an Education Center at 505 Bloomfield Avenue and the six-screen Clairidge theater across the street at 486 Bloomfield Avenue (abandoned during Covid by the Bowtie franchise: “We had to buy it; Montclair is the kind of town that needs a theater.”) A wide variety of enrichment programs are offered for both youth and adults at the Montclair Film Education Center, and specialty programs—such as sensory-friendly screenings and baby-friendly showings—run as well. The organization brings arts education and enrichment to neighboring schools and communities.
Beyond New Jersey arts, the Colberts’ international media company, Spartina Productions, develops projects and produces streaming content with CBS Studios. But it’s the Montclair Film Festival that has made McGee Colbert a hometown name.
Her love for the arts began in childhood. Every year, her hometown, Charleston, South Carolina, hosts the famed Spoleto Festival, a 17-day celebration of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz founded in 1977 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Both Evelyn and Stephen (whose families lived two blocks away from each other) attended the festival as children and saw firsthand the impact that an arts festival can have on a community.
“I joke all the time that Montclair is New Jersey’s Hollywood,” she says, smiling, noting that Montclair is home to many filmmakers, producers, entertainers and industry executives. “It’s the perfect place to host a film festival.”
[RELATED: Martin Scorsese to Appear with Stephen Colbert at Montclair Film Festival]
Over the years, the Colberts have formed a close bond with Governor Phil Murphy and others who keep New Jersey arts thriving. When elected in 2018, he pledged to support New Jersey arts, and he has done so—at scale. His first year in office, he signed a bill giving $75 million in tax credits for filmmakers and digital media producers (reinstating legislation former Governor Chris Christie had discontinued.) In the five years since, New Jersey’s filmmaking industry has grown exponentially. In a development deal brokered by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), local and state governments, and Netflix and Lionsgate Films, a massively ambitious project is in the works. Multiple state-of-the-art soundstages, movie studios and entertainment offices are being built in Newark and Fort Monmouth, scheduled for completion next September. The facilities are intended to substantially boost economic development, while establishing New Jersey as a power player in the filmmaking industry.
For his part, Murphy praised the contribution of advocates like McGee Colbert, telling New Jersey Monthly in a statement, “We are incredibly grateful for the work of Evie McGee Colbert and Stephen Colbert in supporting our arts community here in New Jersey, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
In conversation, McGee Colbert refers to Murphy as “Phil,” John Schreiber, the president and CEO of NJPAC, as “John,” and calls the celebrities and benefactors that form her committees “a little posse of people we work with.” Behind the scenes, this small group made possible the Arts and Culture Renewal Fund that helped sustain artists and keep nonprofit arts organizations afloat during Covid.
“Stephen and I made a donation, and so did to Jon Stewart and his wife Tracy,” says McGee Colbert. “We still support that organization. Hopefully it will continue to exist. One of the things that’s somewhat surprising for a state as large and densely populated as New Jersey is that not a lot of foundations give to the arts. New York City is rich with them. But New Jersey doesn’t have that kind of support.”
With a handful of philanthropists carrying the burden, even generous donors can feel overwhelmed. “We just need more arts philanthropy in the state of New Jersey. No question,” she says. “Especially post-Covid, you look at the model that so many performing arts organizations have, and you can see that it’s just too hard. You can’t depend on ticket buyers only. A movie theater can’t show ‘Top Gun’ 24 hours a day.”
McGee Colbert was speaking not just for herself but for theater owners across the state. She has noticed a shift in people’s viewing habits: after two years of home confinement, people had largely replaced the movie theater experience with streaming shows and movies on the couch. Some movie theaters went out of business; others were thwarted in their efforts to innovate. On a positive note, though, some movie-theater vacancies allowed for groups or individuals to come in and reopen them as indie arthouse cinemas.
For Montclair Film, many challenges lie ahead; this summer, it was the writers’ and actors’ strike (the writers’ strike ended on September 27).
Additionally, in solidarity with the strikers, CBS Studios would not broadcast any show that required writers and actors, so The Late Show with Stephen Colbert went dark. When asked how her high-energy husband handled his unexpected vacation, McGee Colbert smiled, as she often does when his name is mentioned. At these moments, it’s easy to remember the months of Covid isolation, when the couple produced Late Night together at home, charming America with their easy rapport and gentle humor.
“Stephen’s doing a lot of fishing,” she says, laughing. “I mean, yeah, he’s going a little nuts. Performers need endorphins, right?”
The Montclair Film Festival runs from October 20-29. Find out more at montclairfilm.org
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