Independent-film producer Tom Garrett walked into the University of Tampa two years ago looking for a job. His credentials? He made movies and he was unemployable.
"That's how I ended up teaching, just because I said I couldn't do anything else," he said.
But Garrett, 48, went beyond his teaching role, shaking things up at the university's Film Media Arts department.
Garrett has produced more than a dozen independent films over his career. Although they might be unknown to most people, his students say he's making a difference in their lives. Several UT film grads say they would have felt confused and uncertain about their professional futures if they hadn't met him.
"He went beyond being a professor," said graduate Allison Koehler, 22. "He makes opportunities available to everybody."
Like a magician, Garrett restlessly draws from his bottomless magic hat of 25 years of navigating the film industry to make things happen.
For instance, Tim Kennedy, chairman of UT's communications department, was incredulous when Christine Vachon, producer of the 2007 film I'm Not There, dropped by the school last year to participate in a student workshop.
Vachon is one of several award-winning guest speakers who have appeared at UT since Garrett started teaching, including Oscar-winning director Ray McKinnon, 21 Grams executive producer Ted Hope, and Sweet Land producer Jim Bigham.
Garrett, who loves fashion, hates haircuts and is addicted to e-mail, not only brings show business to the school, but he takes his students right into the middle of it.
This year, a group of eight UT film graduates participated at the Cannes Film Festival in France. They had access to all the red carpet screenings and attended networking cocktail parties. Some submitted their work at the festival. Several said they returned from the trip full of confidence and inspiration because of Garrett's guidance.
"Being a student by yourself in Cannes is tricky," said Jerome Paillard, executive director of the Cannes Film Festival. "There are lots of opportunities, but you can get lost in those opportunities."
And let's not forget the time a 1952 Buick Special got wrecked on the concrete fountain in front of UT's Plant Hall during the filming of a trailer for The Right Profile, a period piece to be produced by recent graduate Christian Perkins. The trailer was brought to the Cannes festival's "Short Film Corner" to try to generate funding for the film.
For that occasion, Garrett used his connections to put together a professional crew, from the makeup artist to the cameramen, who donated their time. Otherwise, he said the entire operation would have cost at least $30,000.
"He is the entire energy force behind our film program," Kennedy said. "But he is very humble in his flamboyant way."
Garrett, who has been married twice and has no children, feeds off the energy of young artists who are chasing their dreams. "I need kids around," he said.
He grew up in New Haven, Conn. His parents, who come from a blue-collar background, are puzzled about his profession.
"My parents have no idea what I do because they don't understand the film business," he said.
Garrett's life took a turn at age 24. Fresh out of undergraduate school, he left the country for the first time with his former professor at the University of New Haven and film producer Jean Bodon to attend the Cannes festival.
But it took him another 24 years to recognize that.
"It was only in retrospect last year when I went to Cannes by myself that I really realized how much (Bodon) changed my life by taking me there and opening me up to a new whole world," Garrett said.
Garrett's career as a film producer took off shortly after.
But Bodon, 58, says: "I don't think it was me. I think it was Cannes."
Garrett paid it forward by exposing his own students to the same opportunity this year.
"The heartbeat of cinema exists in only one place, once a year ... and it is in Cannes, not Sundance, Toronto or any other film festival," he said.
Garrett wants them to follow his path and even go beyond.
His most satisfactory achievement is being able to teach young aspiring film producers. After all, Garrett says his students are some of the most interesting people he has ever met — right after Bono and Spike Lee.
The admiration goes both ways.
"He is kind of like Pulp Fiction meets Reservoir Dogs in real life," said graduate Chad Bell, 23, who attended the Cannes trip. "He is so cool, but you can touch him and when you do, he opens up a new world to you."
Garrett is working to make UT a competitive film school. He has been building bridges between the school and the Gasparilla Film Festival, the SunScreen Film Festival and the Educational Channel's Independents Film Festival.
The cinema lecture series, which was started with Garrett's connections, has been officially integrated into the film program's curriculum.
And starting next year, film students will be able to earn credits by attending the Cannes festival as part of UT's study abroad program.
The next rabbit Garrett will pull from his hat? He's working his magic on getting Quentin Tarantino to speak at the school.
Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at [email protected]times.com or (813) 226-3434.