Each time the lights of the Tampa Theatre or the Hub flashed across the big screen of Centro Ybor's Muvico Theater on Wednesday night, the crowd of dozens let out a little cheer.
They were getting the first glimpse of Sex Ed, a raunchy comedy set in Tampa, through a work-in-progress screening before the final film is released next year.
"It's an amazingly beautiful city and we loved working here," said Issac Feder, 34, the Los Angeles director who decided to film his first feature-length comedy in Tampa with stars Haley Joel Osment, Matt Walsh, Glen Powell, Abby Elliot and Retta.
The script was originally set in Feder's native Chicago, but when producers Dori Sperko and Elayne Schneiderman Schmidt of Sweet Tomato Films got hold of it, they knew the story was a great fit to be made in Florida.
"We're from the Tampa Bay area and we really want to build an infrastructure for making movies here and growing the film industry here," said Schneiderman Schmidt, whose previous work includes Up in The Air, Miami Vice and The Birdcage.
"We wanted to show people that Florida is more than just beaches," Sperko explained.
So Sperko and Schneiderman Schmidt flew Feder to Tampa and took him on a tour to Sarasota and back. By the end, he was sold. Not only were the locations promising and previously unrepresented on film, setting the story in Florida also made it easy for the film's interracial romance to present itself naturally.
"At the heart, it was always a story about a multiracial relationship," Feder said. "I think that's who we are now as a country in 2013. No one has to stay in their little boxes anymore. I think it's awesome."
While there's a romantic element, the film also takes a sharp look at sex education in America, something that spurred a backlash before a single second of footage was shot.
"Not one school in the Tampa Bay area — we went to public schools, private school and even charter schools — wanted to let us film a movie called Sex Ed on their campus," Sperko said. "Then along came the Catholic Diocese and it was just this amazing irony."
The diocese allowed the crew to make to movie at the recently closed Sacred Heart on Florida Avenue in Tampa — for a hefty fee, of course, Sperko joked.
Being a classroom comedy, the production cast its net wide to come up with child actors from around the country. A young local actress, Julia E. King, managed to land a role as one of the standout kids.
"We hired about 70 to 80 local people if you're counting up the crew," Schneiderman Schmidt said. Feder said the production excelled because of it. "The crew was amazing," he said.
For 20 days in July, the cast and crew were headquartered at Tampa's Ramada Inn to capture the sights and sounds of Tampa, making the city as much a part of the film as any character. From long drives across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the brick streets of Ybor City, the film doesn't let you forget where it took place. There's even a funny conversation about strip clubs that will make aficionados proud.
The partnership with the area didn't end when the filming wrapped in the summer, Sperko explained. Wednesday night's work-in-progress screening was hosted by the Gasparilla international Film Festival. Viewers were given note cards for suggestions, rating the movie and even a chance to weigh in on the music selection.
"These kinds of things happen in New York and L.A. all the time but it's my first time seeing one here in Tampa," said Joe Restaino, programming director of GIFF.
Sperko said she'd like to hold a Florida premiere at the festival next March.
"We'd love to have them back," Restaino said.