Gasparilla Arts Month: The Gasparilla International Film Festival hits the 10-year mark

The festival runs Mar. 30-Apr. 3, with most screenings in Ybor.

click to enlarge READY FOR THE CLOSEUPS: GIFF Executive Director Monica Varner in her West Tampa office. - David Warner
David Warner
READY FOR THE CLOSEUPS: GIFF Executive Director Monica Varner in her West Tampa office.

With opening night still weeks away, the 10th annual Gasparilla International Film Festival is a thicket of color-coded Post-It Notes stuck to a wall: green for documentaries, blue for narrative features, pink for panels and yellow for shorts. The responsibility for wrestling these raw materials into shape, then making sure all the moving parts are in place once the five-day, $275,000 festival opens Mar. 30, falls to three people in a utilitarian office in West Tampa: Monica Varner, the festival’s executive director; Latasha Taylor, coordinator of guest services; and Kaylin Mere, the film trafficking coordinator. Programming consultant Nancy Collet, a working board led by attorney Rachel Feinman, and a slew of volunteers are also vital to the festival’s operations, but the sausage gets made here.

For Varner, this is familiar territory. She’s been affiliated with the festival since its founding. Beginning as a volunteer, she moved onto the board, then was named exec director six years ago. In addition to helming GIFF, she also runs Big City Events, known for its boozy bashes in Curtis Hixon (such as the Bourbon & Brew Festival and Spring Beer Fling) and for being part of the team that will program the new Pier in St. Petersburg. But Big City goes on hold during GIFF, to which she devotes all her time from January to March.

“There’s nothing else really like a film festival,” she says. “It’s a whole different world.”

She’s seen plenty of highs and lows over the past decade. For instance, the opening night film of 2011, The Music Never Stopped, almost wound up being known as The Music Never Started; technical difficulties held up the screening for an hour while audiences seethed and staff awaited emergency delivery of equipment from across town. Last year, the festival itself seemed at risk of not getting started, with no venues available for screenings until Channelside Cinemas opened up as a temporary home. (The 2016 edition returns to the familiar environs of Ybor City; the opening night will, as always, take place downtown at Tampa Theatre.)

Some things have gotten easier over the years. And now that GIFF is a known quantity, it’s been able not only to attract top filmmaking talent but to welcome returnees. “We’re like a filmmakers’ film festival,” says Varner. “They love coming here because we take care of them.” That’s thanks to staffers like Taylor, whose background is in hospitality. She worked until recently at SoHo’s upscale The Epicurean, one of the hotels where the festival houses its guests. She’s serenely confident about meeting the challenges of keeping the talent happy: “I probably won’t be surprised by anything.”

Choosing and scheduling the films remains an ever-shifting puzzle, hence the Post-It Notes. In addition to vying for what’s hot on the filmfest circuit, GIFF accepts submissions — more than 600 this year — which are viewed by teams of volunteer screeners. Varner points out that not all of the selections have been made for 2016, so if you submitted a film and haven’t yet learned its fate, don’t start worrying — yet.

The opening and closing night films have not been solidified, those choices depending as they often do on whether stars or directors can attend; the full schedule won’t be officially released till March 1. But Varner was able to share some of the more intriguing titles in this year’s fest with CL (see below), and along with board president Feinman, who spoke with CL by phone, pointed to two highlights: the Family Fun Day in Ybor’s Centennial Park on Sun. Apr. 3, and the Cuban showcase.

The Fun Day has everything one might expect from a kid-centric event — face painting, food trucks, fun and games — plus two free family movies (one of which, a current hit starring a very popular bear, may or may not be available in time, but fingers are crossed).

The Cuban emphasis has been characteristic of GIFF since its first year, when the festival showed the classic Memories of Underdevelopment. Attention is heightened this year following the success in 2015 of The Poet of Havana, which snagged an HBO distribution deal as a result of its world premiere screening at GIFF. (That film’s subject, Cuban musician Carlos Varela, will perform at the Gasparilla Music Festival on Mar. 13 — see the GMF preview p. G4 — and the filmmaker, Ron Chapman, is back this year with another Cuba documentary, The Forbidden Shore.)

GIFF is recognizing its anniversary with three unique logos designed by Roundhouse Creative’s Andrew Lee, each one a big “10” made up of emblems representing different aspects of the festival. Given that “most film festivals don’t make it to the 10th year,” says Varner, the milestone is worthy of note. And GIFF has learned from its longevity: “We’re a lot more stable than we used to be. We’re getting better films, better sponsors, more members, higher attendance.”

The staff’s still tiny, of course. But come the last weekend of March, when an expected 15,000 attendees head to the movies, chances are this team will be ready. 

The full schedule, including opening and closing night films, won’t be announced till March 1, but here are a few titles and trends to pique your interest.

Cheyenne’s the man:
The matinee idol-handsome Cheyenne Jackson of Broadway and TV fame (Glee, American Horror Story) stars in two movies coming to the fest: A Beautiful Now, with Abigail Spencer, and Bear with Us, in which a wedding proposal is interrupted by bears.

Forever Amber: Amber Heard (aka Mrs. Johnny Depp) stars in two features, One More Time, with Christopher Walken as a crooner planning a comeback, and in The Adderall Diaries, with James Franco as a writer mixed up in substance abuse, memory loss and murder.

More star power: Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka in the thriller The Black Coat’s Daughter (formerly known as February); Stephen Dorff in the international finance drama The Debt; Penelope Cruz in the Spanish-language film Ma ma.

What’s up, docs: A strong documentary lineup includes Hair I Go Again, about two guys who try to reform their rock band from the ’80s, and Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, Joe Berlinger’s film about the ubiquitous life coach (it premieres at South By Southwest before showing here).

Cuba libre: In addition to Ron Chapman’s The Forbidden Shore, documentaries on our island neighbor include Craving Cuba and Havana Motor Club.

Family Fun Day: Free movies and more at Ybor’s Centennial Park, Sun. Apr. 3, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Industry Panels: Free insights from filmmaking professionals, HCC Ybor, Sat. Apr. 2. Times and titles TBA.

Parties, parties parties: All over Ybor, with events at Crowbar on Thursday, GameTime on Friday, and venues TBA for Saturday and closing night. The opening night event is, as always, at Tampa Theatre.

Wed., Mar. 30-Sun., Apr. 3. Opening night, Tampa Theatre, 911 Franklin St., Tampa. Festival screenings at Carmike Cinemas, Centro Ybor. Ticket passes range from $25-$250. Single tickets also available.

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