Ten years ago, the Gasparilla International Film Festival sailed into Tampa on bumpy seas.
That first year could've been its last, after wan attendance at Channelside and cancelled events.
What a difference a decade makes.
Now principally sponsored by Suncoast Credit Union, the Gasparilla festival is thriving. Executive director Monica Varner coordinated volunteers in 2007.
"I am like the last man standing (from that year's staff)," Varner said. "I worked pretty hard keeping it alive, that's for sure. I see the potential in it. Behind the scenes I can see where it's growing and where it's going... becoming a legitimate film festival."
Here are this weekend's Gasparilla highlights. Visit gasparillafilmfestival.com for a complete lineup and ticket sales.
Gasparilla's lineup of 115 features, documentaries and shorts ranges from studio slick to homegrown humble, plus a Cuban cinema sidebar more topical now than ever.
Screenings are held at Muvico Centro Ybor, 1600 E 8th Ave. Tickets are $12 unless otherwise noted.
World premieres include Precious Cargo (Sat. 8:35 p.m.), a jewelry heist drama starring Bruce Willis and Gasparilla guest Mark-Paul Gosselaar, a former Saved By the Bell heartthrob. Making their Florida debuts are the comedy Puerto Ricans in Paris (Sat. 4:05 p.m.) and The Blackcoat's Daughter, a horror film starring Emma Roberts.
Sunday's 6:30 p.m. closer, Everybody Wants Some!!, ($15) is Richard Linklater's "spiritual sequel" to 1993's cult hit Dazed and Confused.
On another creative level are 16 Tampa Bay high school filmmakers whose work will be honored in nine competitive categories Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Three documentaries on Cuban culture are slated. Craving Cuba (Thurs., 6:30 p.m.) profiles a Cuban-American woman torn between home and ideology. The Forbidden Shore (Fri., 6:35) explores Cuba's musical heritage, and Havana Motor Club its obsession with muscle cars.
Visit gasparillafilmfestival.com for a complete schedule and tickets.
Gasparilla's shiniest star this year is Academy Award winner Rita Moreno, who'll receive a career achievement award Saturday, after a 6 p.m. screening of her cross-generational comedy Remember Me. Moreno is also slated to participate in Saturday's panel discussion of acting technique, at 12:30 p.m. on the HCC Ybor campus, a short walk away from the Centro Ybor multiplex. Admission is free. Gosselaar will join Moreno in that discussion.
Oscar nominee Rosie Perez was a late addition to the Gasparilla guest list, accompanying her fashion caper comedy Puerto Ricans in Paris. Perez will appear at Saturday's 4:05 p.m. screening.
Animation buffs may prefer Thursday's 5 p.m. seminar titles Bill Plympton: With the Stroke of a Pencil, in which the two-time Oscar nominee discusses his craft. Tickets are $12 for this special event at Centro Ybor.
Another Oscar nominee, actor Diane Ladd, was originally expected to attend but backed out due to a scheduling conflict.
In addition to that panel on acting, Gasparilla offers insightful discussions on casting (Sat., 11 a.m.), below-the-line crafts (Sat., 4:30), and how to run a film festival (Sun., 1 p.m.). Film Tampa Bay's commissioner Dale Gordon and Darcy McKinnon will talk about the area's filmmaking future, Sunday at 12 noon.
The most intriguing panel is Billion Dollar Pitch (Sat., 2 p.m.), in which producer Randall Emmitt (Lone Survivor, Everest) will hear three pitches from aspiring filmmakers. Emmitt will select one to have its screenplay optioned, a first step toward production.
Each festival day ends with a party in an Ybor City club, and Gasparilla passholders get in free.
Wednesday's opening night reception at the Tampa Theatre includes bites from Eddie V's Prime Seafood and Stella Artois Beer & Dark Horse Wine. You can meet the leading players in the film festival and check out the red carpet arriavals. $65 includes the opening night film, Eye in the Sky with Helen Mirren starring as a military officer leading a drone operation in pursuit of Kenyan terrorists. 711 N Franklin St., Tampa.
Thursday's throwdown is at Crowbar, 1812 N 17th St., where Have Guns Will Travel leads a live performance of The Last Waltz, The Band's farewell concert. Friday concludes at the Castle, 2004 N 16th St., and Saturday at GameTime, 1600 E 8th Ave.
The festival's closing night party ($75) is set for the Ritz Ybor, 1503 E 7th Ave., 7 p.m. until midnight.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.