30 years later in Tampa, USF friends make Hollywood dreams come true

Their movie, “The Throwback,” stars Justina Machado, Will Sasso, Bobby Lee, Michelle Randolph and Rhonda Shear. It premieres at Tampa Theatre on May 3.
Michael Alfieri, left, and Mario Garcia on the set of "The Throwback," which was filmed in Tampa Bay. Alfieri produced and Garcia wrote and directed the movie.
Michael Alfieri, left, and Mario Garcia on the set of "The Throwback," which was filmed in Tampa Bay. Alfieri produced and Garcia wrote and directed the movie. [ Courtesy of David Moorhouse ]
Published April 27|Updated April 29

In the early 1990s, two University of South Florida students bonded over shared Hollywood dreams and promised to one day make a movie together.

They both moved to Los Angeles and broke into the film industry before settling into other endeavors.

Then, a few years ago, the friends gave it another try. Mario Garcia and Michael Alfieri, both 52, made a movie. “The Throwback” premieres at 7 p.m. on May 3 at Tampa Theatre.

Alfieri produced and Garcia wrote and directed the movie shot throughout Tampa Bay in 2022. It stars Justina Machado from “Jane the Virgin,” Will Sasso from “Mad TV,” Bobby Lee from “Magnum P.I.,” Michelle Randolph from “1923″ and Rhonda Shear from “USA Up All Night.”

“It’s all been pretty surreal to make a movie in Tampa with a friend I met in Tampa,” said Alfieri, now a Los Angeles resident, “and then to have its first screening in Tampa.”

“The Throwback” is a comedy about an underappreciated and stressed supermom whose holiday-season mental breakdown causes her to believe that she is a college-age party girl.

“She is married to this overweight bald guy, she has kids, and realizes that life didn’t work out the way that she planned it,” said Garcia, who grew up in Tampa and still lives there. “And really, that is the theme behind the movie. For me personally, this is a second chance to try and live my dream.”

Garcia was the first of the friends to move to Los Angeles, doing so shortly after graduating from USF in 1992 with a degree in mass communications. He was hired as the assistant to a producer while earning side money as a graphic designer.

After a year, he was making just $300 a week and didn’t see a promotion coming. He left Hollywood to earn a degree from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

Garcia next went into business with his father, also named Mario Garcia and a famed newspaper designer whose clients have included The Wall Street Journal and the Miami Herald.

At a time when online news was just beginning to take off, they started a company designing websites for media outlets, with their clients including The Washington Post and New York Post.

Meanwhile, Alfieri, who was raised in South Florida, graduated from USF in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He moved to Los Angeles, where he was hired as an assistant for Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated producer David Permut, whose credits include “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,” “Blind Date” and “Hacksaw Ridge.”

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Will Sasso with Stacy Michelle in "The Throwback," which was filmed in Tampa Bay.
Will Sasso with Stacy Michelle in "The Throwback," which was filmed in Tampa Bay. [ Courtesy of David Moorhouse ]

Then, in the late 1990s, recalling that Garcia had once written a comedy script about a heartbroken journalist whose anti-marriage column convinces readers to get divorced, Alfieri used connections to get his friend a second chance in the movie business.

Garcia was signed by an agent and the movie was optioned. But nothing happened.

“Around 99% of the projects that get started don’t go anywhere,” Garcia said. “That’s what happened with that script.”

Garcia was again done with Hollywood. Alfieri soon was, too.

From Permut, he moved on to the music department of Miramax Films until The Walt Disney Co. assumed control of the independent movie studio in 2005.

“I got laid off,” said Alfieri, who still resides in Los Angeles. “I then wrote a script, had a manager, thought it was going to sell, yada, yada, it didn’t, and that was pretty much it. I left the business for 12 years and got into real estate. Then, five years ago, I had an epiphany, a midlife crisis, or whatever you want to call it. I had to give the movie thing another chance.”

Related: 17 Tampa Bay productions received $1.5 million in county funds in 2022

One of his first calls was to Garcia, who in recent years had left the website business to start a software design company that he then sold. And, with more time, he too decided to give film another chance by writing “The Throwback.”

They initially sought the traditional big-budget studio route before realizing that producing it on their own as an independent movie was the best way to avoid the film becoming one of the 99% that don’t go anywhere.

“It’s a testament to Mario’s writing that so many stars wanted to do it,” Alfieri said.

Making it in Tampa Bay, where their Hollywood dreams began, felt right.

And when it came time to choose a director, Alfieri said he never wavered from his one choice. “It had to be Mario. He wasn’t sure, but I knew he could do it. It’s his story.”

Garcia said it still doesn’t seem real. “I haven’t had a chance to sit back and enjoy it yet. The whole ‘I made a movie with my college friend’ thing hasn’t set in. But I am sure it will feel surreal once it premieres.”

If you go

“The Throwback” premieres at 7 p.m. on May 3 at Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St.

Admission is free.

To RSVP, visit