Gasparilla International Film Festival grows up, shines brightly

Gov. Charlie Crist is shown with Ana Hill of Thespians, which was a festival hit.

STEVE PERSALL | Times

Gov. Charlie Crist is shown with Ana Hill of Thespians, which was a festival hit.

The little film festival that could, did.

Sunday night, the Gasparilla International Film Festival — after three years of sharp growing pains — matured into what every regional showcase hopes to be.

Good movies? The closing film, Warren Skeel's Glee-ful documentary Thespians, may have been the best of the festival's strongest lineup ever. Awards were presented to appreciative indie filmmakers in a Tampa Theatre setting that had visitors from as far away as Brazil swooning at its Old World elegance.

Good parties? When Mother Nature dampened plans for an outdoor wrap party in Hyde Park Village, the staff improvised an indoor shindig that felt planned for 24 days, not hours. Sunday's showers forced relocation to a former clothing store temporarily dressed for excess.

And celebrities? They were there Sunday, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and actors Stephen Baldwin and Armand Assante. Not to mention those struggling filmmakers whose works and a smart audience's attention made them stars for at least one night.

Survey the buoyant crowd, gourmet snacks, open bar and throbbing music, listen to artists talking up next projects or just cutting loose, and Sunday night was obviously what a film festival's last hurrah should be.

"We're still tallying the (attendance) numbers, but what we've heard from everyone is that they've just had such a great time," festival president Chad Moore said before the party. "Everyone loved the format, we had a lot of mingling at the (Cinebistro) lobby bar with the filmmakers; that's what a film festival is all about. It couldn't have gone better."

The festival's attendance record of 10,000 visitors was set last year in a 10-day format; Moore expects this year's numbers for a four-day affair to be proportionately successful.

The evening's showcase was Thespians, a captivating documentary following four high school acting troupes preparing for state competition held annually in Tampa.

Watching these talented teenagers tackling tough scenes with veteran gusto — backed by marvelously devoted teachers — was an extraordinary experience. The last time I recall leaving a festival feeling this good about a previously unknown documentary was Murderball a few years ago in Sarasota, and that one got nominated for an Oscar.

Thespians isn't likely to match that feat but deserves a distribution deal to try.

Crist didn't stay long at the party. We briefly chatted about the pending vote on expanding Florida's tax incentive program to attract more Hollywood productions. Crist basically rehearsed with me what he told the crowd a few minutes later:

"Film in Florida is so important to our state," he said. "It's clean, it's high-paying, it's all about jobs, jobs, jobs. The other thing that's great for the Sunshine State is (that) it advertises Florida all around the world, and that is truly priceless.

"This is a time when we need more people to come to the Sunshine State. Anything we can do in our administration to help these great artists who do so much to make the quality of life that much more special, we're here to do it."

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.

Film festival winners

Best feature: Friends with Benefits

Best Florida production: Endure

Audience prize (short):

Seven to Ten Business Days (best short)

Audience prize (documentary):

Full Signal

Audience prize (feature): Hope for a Thorn

Special merit awards:

Prime of Your Life, The Calling

Merit awards for acting:

Ryan Donowho (Prime of Your Life),

Margaret Laney (Friends with Benefits)

Young Filmmaker Prize:

Kelley Katzenmeyer, To Be Remembered

Best short: Piece of Paper

(Honorable mention: Bilali's Stand)

Gasparilla International Film Festival grows up, shines brightly 03/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 12:16am]

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