In 2002, a chance meeting between film industry veteran Diane Raver and New Jersey-born actor Robert Pastorelli led to the formation of the Garden State Film Festival, which premiered the next year and is again preparing for its annual showing in Atlantic City.

New Jersey's place in cinematic history has long been secure, with Thomas Edison developing early film cameras and projectors at his Menlo Park lab, and latter opening a studio in the state.

But this festival strives to honor New Jersey with "an all-encompassing celebration of its heritage in the film business," Raver said of the four-day event, which this year will feature 233 films hailing from 17 countries, shown across eight distinct venues at the Claridge and Resorts hotels.

"It is a true celebration of the independent film genre," she said.

Nearly a third of the entries, 71 in total, were either filmed in New Jersey, made by New Jersey residents, or created by filmmakers who previously called the Garden State home. Several of the films are feature-length; others span just a few minutes.

"We have an abundance of talent, and we like to think of ourselves as a launching pad for the next generation of filmmaker," Raver said.

That next generation is getting started early: among the films with New Jersey roots, a handful of them are submissions from local high schools.

The festival kicks off Thursday night with a "Meet the Filmmakers" gala and will conclude Sunday night with an awards dinner recognizing the very best films among this year's crop. All events are open to the public, and tickets are available on-site or at gsff.org.

Two of the most Jersey-centric attractions are set to take place on Saturday. One is a panel discussion, Actors on Acting, that will feature "Sopranos" alum Al Sapienza, who appears in Netflix's "House of Cards," as well as long-established stars Ed Asner and Sally Struthers. The other is an open casting call Saturday morning for future film projects.

"So many careers have been born out of that, and it's free, so you never know, you could get your big break," Raver said.

In addition, Pequannock-born actor Joey Russo, who recently portrayed Joe Pesci in the film adaptation of "Jersey Boys," has been announced by the festival as the recipient of this year's Rising Star Award.

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