Movie magic at the Gasparilla International Film Festival

Tampa's biggest and best film festival is back for a seventh year of screenings, stars and more.

This year marks the seventh unspooling of Tampa’s own Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF), which for 2013 bumps up to five days of screenings, parties, panels and celebrity sightings. A real gem for Tampa’s cultural arts scene, GIFF is a must-do event for film buffs, locals who work in the film industry, and people who just know a great party when they see one. Putting on a festival like GIFF takes an enormous amount of work, and it’s the people involved who bring it all together.

People like Monica Varner. With the festival since its inception (in previous years she’s served as volunteer coordinator, board member, and director of operations and events), Varner took over as executive director for last year’s fest. The job requires her to be involved in all aspects of the running of the festival. Or, as she says, “Managing everything. All logistics. Basically producing the entire festival. It’s a lot of moving parts.”

Varner does this as part of a very small core group, including festival President and Programming Director Joe Restaino, Events & Marketing Manager Kyle Gilliland, and a few others. “Luckily we all get along very well; we haven’t killed each other yet,” she says. That’s somewhat surprising, since Varner estimates that four people do the work of 12 in planning and running GIFF.

“We work better under pressure. We have no choice,” she says with a laugh. “Things change. Schedules change. Running a festival is like trying to hit a moving target.”

This year’s “moving target” includes the world premiere of crime drama Empire State, which stars Liam Hemsworth and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (Varner says the number one question she gets from people is “Will The Rock be there?” Unfortunately no, as he’s off promoting the latest G.I. Joe adventure.) There are also the Bay area premieres of Iceman, with James Franco as a mob hit man, and the “feminist thriller” Black Rock, directed by The League’s Katie Aselton, and starring Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth.

Other festival highlights include a special screening of the Tampa-shot action flick The Punisher, with the film’s star, Thomas Jane, on hand to pick up the Career Achievement Award. Workshops and post-film Q&A sessions with filmmakers and industry pros will appeal to the aspiring and current filmmakers in the audience. “It’s an experience,” Varner says. “That’s why the Q&A happen. … The audience can interact with a filmmaker and ask, ‘Why did you that?’” A very cool slate of events is lined up for Fri., March 22 at the Ybor’s Italian Club, including a screening of the Italian import Resistanza and a late-night (10 p.m-2 a.m.) concert by Lisa Casalino; and the Rockabilly-themed “closing night” party (in the restaurant space that formerly housed Stump’s Supper Club) takes place this year on Saturday night as opposed to Sunday.

“The Saturday party is my favorite thing,” Varner says. “It’s pretty much after all the films have happened, and it’s a good place to go and talk about the fest, relive the movies, and see the actors and directors. For me it’s a release. We try to show the people from out of town that Tampa is a cool place, too.”

As this is the festival’s seventh year, Varner and company are hoping for a particularly lucky outing. I asked her to what degree luck played a role in planning this year’s event. “100 percent, this year’s a complete gamble,” she says laughing. “I think luck plays into every festival. Timing is key. And that goes for finding films, booking the talent, etc.”

Despite the stress of putting on the event, and the fact that none of the principal organizers profit from their work, Varner remains dedicated to GIFF. “Many people don’t get to experience these things and it’s fun to bring films people wouldn’t otherwise see to Tampa,” she says. “It’s cool to be part of that.”

Keep an eye on the CL Movies Page, which in coming days will feature a look at the festival’s slate of documentaries, a report from the opening night gala, photos and more.

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