After a disastrous 2007 start, the Gasparilla International Film Festival has made a comeback Lazarus would envy. Now it's one of Florida's premier cinema showcases, with its sixth edition more ambitious than ever.
This year's Gasparilla lineup includes 120 features, documentaries and shorts from 20 countries, including a sidebar devoted to Cuban cinema. Twenty-seven films will make their world premieres in Tampa, and nearly 50 screenings are Florida debuts.
Another number recently dropped by festival president Joe Restaino confirms that the Gasparilla festival is building a solid reputation among filmmakers:
"About 85 to 90 percent of the films will be represented by somebody: a producer, director or somebody in the cast," Restaino said when announcing the lineup. "That's pretty incredible."
Here's a handy primer for this year's Gasparilla festival, focusing on key movies, celebrities and parties. You never know who or what may be right around the corner, or sitting in the seat next to you.
n See the movies
Tonight's festival opener at Tampa Theatre is the Sundance favorite Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, a dramedy directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), starring Academy Award winner Jane Fonda as an old hippie teaching Woodstock lessons to her grandchildren. Producer Claude Dal Farra introduces the film, and actor Chazz Palminteri receives the festival's career achievement award. Tickets are $12 for admission only to the 7:30 p.m. movie and presentation.
Sunday's closing selection, also at Tampa Theatre, is The Hunter, a Toronto Film Festival entry starring Willem Dafoe as a mercenary hired to track down a rare Tasmanian tiger. After, I'll moderate a Q&A session with director Daniel Nettheim. Show time is 4:30 p.m. ($12).
Between those bookends, screenings are split between Centro Ybor 20 in Ybor City and Cinebistro in Hyde Park Village. Browse through gasparillafilmfestival.com for complete show times, locations and tickets.
Among the most anticipated films are Theresa Sareo: Alive Again (7:45 p.m. Friday, Centro Ybor 20), chronicling a singer-songwriter turning her amputated leg into inspiration for many, and Juan de los Muertos (10:40 p.m. Friday, Cinebistro), a Havana-based zombie flick that recently won the audience award at Miami's film festival.
The loudest buzz surrounding Gasparilla is Saturday's outdoor experiment, transforming a Hyde Park Village parking garage roof into a drive-in theater. Festival honoree Keith David will introduce a screening of The Thing (1982), projected upon a crane-hoisted screen. Admission is $20 per carload, or $10 for individual walk-ups. Stick around after the movie for DJ jams until midnight.
n Watch the stars
Here's the best tip for stargazing: Be at Centro Ybor 20 at 4 p.m. Friday for a free panel discussion on acting that is expected to include the festival's biggest celebrity guests: Chazz Palminteri, Keith David and festival board member Armand Assante, along with faces you may recognize, if not the names attached: Tom Nowicki, Ryan O'Nan, Michael Roark and Obba Babatunde.
Also check online for screenings with stars attending. Palminteri introducing A Bronx Tale (7:45 p.m. Friday, Cinebistro) is a highlight, along with O'Nan accepting the festival's rising star award at a showing of The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (6:30 p.m. Saturday, Centro Ybor 20).
n Feel the party
Half the fun of any film festival occurs outside theaters, and Gasparilla has several shindigs in store, many with free admission.
Tonight's opening VIP party at Tampa Theatre ($55 including movie admission) features samplings from numerous Tampa restaurants, beer and wine. After the show, stroll down Franklin Street to Fly Bar for live music, drink specials and no cover charge.
This year, Gasparilla introduces Soundstage, a free outdoor music event featuring the local band Busted Blues, food trucks and beverages. The party begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday around the Hyde Park Village fountain.
In addition to Saturday's drive-in theater DJ, the festival gets down at Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Ybor City. Admission is free, and specials for festivalgoers begin at 10 p.m.
Finally, there's the party-chic closing night bash at an as-yet-undisclosed Channelside location, with an open bar, buffet and live entertainment. Tickets are $75. Last year's burlesque bash at the decayed Kress building is tough to beat, but betting against Gasparilla's success isn't recommended anymore.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.