ST. PETERSBURG — John Travolta and Kelly Preston always happen to be in the neighborhood, so they decided to help a local film festival.
The first couple of Scientology — or perhaps a close second, if Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are around — schmoozed with filmmakers and fans Tuesday night at Push Ultra Lounge on behalf of the third annual Sunscreen Film Festival, starting March 19.
"We commute here (to Pinellas County) five days a week, flying in for our church, our flag base," Travolta said during a brief interview. "We have a real relationship here with our church (in Clearwater) and it's nice to expand that to help the local commerce."
Travolta and Preston live most of the year in Ocala, regularly flying his personal airplane into the Tampa Bay area for Scientology and — for at least one night — to lend star power to Sunscreen. The festival is devoted to independent filmmakers whose efforts are usually overlooked by distributors and audiences.
Bona fide stars like Travolta endorsing an emerging film festival — such as Robert Redford with Sundance and Martin Scorsese with Tribeca — can make a big difference in community acceptance and attendance.
"Independent filmmakers depend on that more than anything," Travolta said. "If they don't have the forum to promote their pieces, it's hard for them."
Nobody understands that better than Sunscreen co-founder Tony Armer, who called Church of Scientology headquarters in Clearwater inquiring how to contact Travolta for an invitation.
"We knew he has a home in Florida, we know he shot The Punisher here a few years ago and we know he'd like to do more film work in Florida," Armer said. "So we approached his people and made a pitch. The worst he could say is no, and he said yes. We were surprised and excited at the same time."
Armer added that besides contacting Travolta through his church, the controversial religion has no connection to Sunscreen.
"As far as Scientology goes, there aren't any (festival) board members who are Scientologists, and Scientology hasn't give us any money," he said.
Travolta and Preston arrived at Push Ultra Lounge about 7:40 p.m. and were hustled inside where television and print reporters waited their turns. After 40 minutes of interviews, the doors opened and an estimated 125 people crammed inside for a glimpse of the Hairspray star and his wife before they exited shortly after 9 p.m.
Travolta made no formal comments, preferring to speak to reporters about his endorsement of Florida-based filmmaking, then greeting a long line of well-wishers and snapshot cameras.
Professional photographers were under strict rules to hand over shots for Travolta's personal approval before publication. (The Times didn't send a photographer inside for that reason.) Even outside on the public sidewalk, a Travolta representative chastised a Times photographer for snapping pictures as the actors entered the building.
One stargazer inside was St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who considered Sunscreen as "one component of this incredible arts renaissance we've got going on in St. Petersburg.
"Film festivals can be a great economic driver, and a great amenity for the arts culture. Having someone of John Travolta's name and popularity to support it is a great thing. I don't know enough about the business to say exactly which direction it should go, but I'm in favor of it growing and becoming a destination for people to enjoy."
Whatever future the Sunscreen Film Festival faces, Travolta sounded amenable to helping out again.
"I would say if it were needed and wanted, it would be something to consider," he said. "They need to guide us in that particular way, find out what they are capable of doing and what they need. They'll let us know."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or [email protected] Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.