Who better to star in a company's first feature, a comedy, than an actor who just happens to be studying with Second City, the renowned improv troupe?

Charleston-born Ben Zisk, now living in Chicago, plays the lead in "Republic of Pete," the inaugural feature-length foray from the area production house Hollywood SC Studios. The movie screens at 9 p.m. today at the Charleston International Film Festival (CIFF).

The festival opened its third season Thursday at the American Theatre downtown.

A capacity crowd was on hand to see director Rick Bieber's opening night showcase feature, "The 5th Quarter," starring Aidan Quinn and South Carolina native Andie MacDowell.

The film chronicles a real-life story surrounding a memorable season in the history of Wake Forest University football. The showings were followed by an after-party at Chai's.

"Republic of Pete" producers Akim Anastopoulo and Matt Slechter, who also run Atlas Worldwide Syndications & Distributions in North Charleston, chose a fledgling talent to helm their film, as well.

A recent College of Charleston graduate, director Jesse Berger was a relative novice with only a few short films to his credit when Anastopoulo, a local attorney, met him at the 2009 CIFF.

"I was one of the judges last year," Anastopoulo said, "and saw his prize-winning short, 'South of the Border.' I could not believe how talented Jesse was. So I immediately approached him and started talking about our film. I was very confident in his ability from the start."

Also in the cast of "Republic of Pete," whose cast and crew are entirely local, are Clarence Felder, Michael Easler, Richard Bryant (of "Army Wives"), Miles Pittman and Taylor Townes. The film was shot largely on Folly Beach and in downtown Charleston.

"Our studio funded the project and will distribute the film as well," said Slechter. "Atlas has been distributing domestically for the last five years, and we started Hollywood SC Studios in 2008. We've begun breaking out in the past couple of years toward international distribution."

Hollywood SC Studios also specializes in TV series such as "Eye for an Eye," now seen in 34 countries, commercials, motion graphics, infomercials and educational videos.

Currently, Anastopoulo and Slechter said the company is producing a sitcom and exploring other feature-length projects. But they insist one of their principal goals is that of supporting the local film community.

"I think this film proves what amazing talent we have here," Anastopoulo said. "We are extremely proud of our cast and crew, and very pleased to have been selected for this year's festival."

The CIFF runs through Sunday.

For more information about the Charleston International Film Festival go to www.charlestoniff.com

Reach Bill Thompson at bthompson@postandcourier.com or 937-5707.