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Gasparilla and Jewish film fests combine, hoping two is better than one

Tampa Bay's film festival season is now a double feature with two long-running events splicing their audiences together.

For its 12th edition, the Suncoast Credit Union Gasparilla International Film Festival is combining forces with the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival, now in its 22nd year. In this case, opposite strategies for showcasing cinema make attractive partners.

The Gasparilla festival, opening March 20, is largely centered in Ybor City where the Jewish Film Festival hasn't ventured. Their screenings are traditionally held in suburban venues in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Now that theater outreach is mutual, with Gasparilla offerings on screens in St. Petersburg, Palm Harbor, Largo and Tampa's Carrollwood district.

"With this partnership we're accomplishing our mission," said Ferdian Jap, Gasparilla festival director of development. "We're Tampa Bay's film festival, not just a Tampa thing or a St. Pete thing or a Jewish thing. We're not just in the urban center anymore. We're in the suburbs now."

The Jewish Film Festival, usually held in April, also hasn't featured Gasparilla's blend of parties, industry panel discussions and brushes with celebrity.

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"We don't offer a lot of parties in Ybor City or talk-back sessions and panels like they offer," festival coordinator Brandy Gold said. "But we offer stories that Jewish people want to see."

Each festival retains its independence in selecting films and inviting guests.

"Since we really want to test the relationship, we chose not to completely merge all aspects of (the festivals)," said Tampa JCC chief operating officer Heidi Shimberg. One exception is the Jewish Film Festival turning to Gasparilla's online ticketing process, "a more robust system than what we were using previously."

Another benefit is Gasparilla's exposure through national news outlets. The Jewish Film Festival has mostly relied on niche media like JCC newsletters to spread the word.

Collaborating film festivals are rare but not unprecedented. The Lone Star International Film Festival and the Modern Cinema: Great Movies You Haven't Heard Of showcase merged once in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2014. Other film festival collaborations were reported in Limerick, Ireland, and Zimbabwe.

More often movies are paired in festivals with other art forms as Gasparilla tried last year, holding its film and music festivals concurrently. That decision required the film portion's move to early March, leading to programming problems and a downturn in attendance.

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"We learned to avoid being at the same time as (the) Miami (Film Festival)," executive director Monica Varner said. "We didn't realize what the conflict was going to be as far as premieres" and attracting celebrity talent.

Jap said roughly 12,000 festival tickets were sold in 2017, a 20 percent drop from the previous year. This year he's predicting sales of 20,000 with the return to late March and the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival connection.

Jap's prediction lines up with Gold's, who expects to sell nearly 5,000 tickets to the Jewish festival screenings. Last year's event filled nearly 3,200 seats with six fewer films and without Gasparilla support.

Gold has noticed an uptick in sponsorships due to "more macro marketing exposure now" with Gasparilla's festival program and on-screen branding. Festival passes are selling as always but success also depends on walkup sales at box offices.

Gold brushed away any suggestion that the Jewish Film Festival might be overshadowed by its new partner.

"When I first heard about it, that might have been a question of mine," Gold said. "What I've seen is actually the opposite."

Gold noted Gasparilla's immediate upgrade in Jewish cinema offerings with her festival's 18-film lineup, its largest ever.

"(Gasparilla) truly is an international film festival," she said. "They hit the button on every ethnicity, religion, nationality they can. The Jewish section has always shown award-winning films, but only two or three, maybe four. ...

"Our constituents are now interested in looking at the Gasparilla festival as a whole, where over the years people looked to the Jewish Film Festival for that (personal) connection. Being overshadowed is kind of the least of our worries at this point."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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