“We’ll call it the Floridawood experience”: Talking with Sunscreen Executive Director Ryan Tarrant

Celebrity guests, a spotlight on women in film, and “Spaceballs” are among the highlights he's looking forward to.

Filming "Sugar," a collaborative project of Dylan McDermott and students from Ringling College of Art & Design. - Rich Schineller
Rich Schineller
Filming "Sugar," a collaborative project of Dylan McDermott and students from Ringling College of Art & Design.
We sat down with Ryan Tarrant to talk about what to expect at Sunscreen 2017. Tarrant's served on the board for the past three years and his company, downtown St. Pete’s Courtyard by Marriott, has sponsored the fest for the past five, but this is the first year he's served as executive director. For more Sunscreen awesomeness, check out our festival round-up and our interview with Orange Is The New Black actress and filmmaker Selenis Levya.

What's the most exciting change to the Festival this year?

Wow. I would say there's two different pieces to that, both with the programming and then with the industry guests. With the programming this year, with bringing [programming director] Joe Restaino on, he did a fantastic job to bring a lot of really top-tier films that are going to have a lot of the industry guests from those films in attendance. So in the past where we've had three or four industry guests, celebrity-wise — last year was Gary Busey — this year we have nine. All of them are within films that we're screening, and that's not counting any of the directors and different types of filmmakers. The industry guests that we have coming from the programming is incredible this year.

One piece that I'm really excited about is our focus on women in film this year. We have a ton of films with some really, really great industry guests, celebrities, directors — and we get to focus on them through their films, and then we'll have a chance to celebrate them with the Women in Film brunch [10:30 Saturday at the Chihuly Collection]. It's going to be a brunch mix-and-mingle, and then a panel which will have a number of our female industry guests led by Daphne Zuniga, and then a couple of other of our guests, plus we have a couple of other local filmmakers in the industry who will be doing a panel. It's really exciting.

The Sunscreen Film Festival consistently gets some great names. Does it help that there's the Scientology tie-in, because so many celebrities are part of the church? To what do you attribute the ease with which you get these great names?

If you look at us 12 years ago, we weren't, obviously, getting these kind of names. I think that the relationships that the festival has created over the past decade combined with a number of our board members… including Tony, who's now the St. Pete/Clearwater film commissioner, Joe Restaino [film producer and former Gasparilla International Film Festival president], who's done his thing for quite a while, have made it easier for us to bring a lot of really great films to the festival, and we've built a reputation that not only are we going to be able to showcase these films to the Florida market, but we also show the industry guests that come down a fantastic time. We get a chance to show them not only the beautiful beaches and downtown of St. Pete, but the Tampa Bay area, and to be honest with you, who doesn't want to come back to this city? I mean, California is great with everything they offer, and then you have Cannes and Toronto and these fantastic film festivals, but St. Pete has really dug its own little niche and I think people talk about it and want to be a part of it. I wouldn't contribute it to any specific board members and their ties to any churches or organizations. It does help sometimes, you know, looking at the roster of people that we have, that's not really in effect on anybody that we're bringing in this year. But just like working with that church, if we were to call on somebody from my Christian church to bring somebody in, we would do that as well. Any way we can, we're trying to bring some celebrities to St. Pete, Clearwater, Tampa to show off our city and have them be a part of the Festival.

What are the top things you think people should hit at the Festival this year?

I would say, if I were a general moviegoer and I was just getting into film festivals, a lot of people think this is probably a private event, so I really want to debunk that: This is not a private event, this is a ticketed event, and a lot of our movies and films are just like if you went to a film on a Friday or a Saturday at the local movie theater. The ticket prices are going to be about the same; sometimes they're cheaper. Anybody can go to these events. If you've got yourself a day pass, I definitely encourage you to come to opening night, because you're going to get a chance to walk the red carpet, not just with your friends, but you will literally be able to walk next to the celebrities that we're bringing. We make sure that everybody that we bring in, most of the time, they're accessible. It's been very, very far and few between that we've had any industry guests that don't want to be a part of the community. So when we bring people in, they all walk the red carpet together, you get this Hollywood experience — we'll call it the Floridawood experience, maybe we'll get that back someday. So I would say opening night: You get the red carpet, you get the opening night film, the opening night film is incredible this year. It stars Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin and, of course, Dylan McDermott who, of course, will be in attendance. To kind of rewind a little bit, before the red carpet is Dylan McDermott's world premiere of his TV series called Sugar which he partnered with the Ringling School of Art & Design down in Sarasota. We get to premiere that here. That's the first one I would say, and the second one is probably — there's so many good films, it's hard to pick out — I'm a retro kind of guy; I love ’80s and ’90s films, cult classics, so I would say something pretty cool for the community, if you don't get a chance to buy a ticket, we do have a community-oriented free event that's open to the public, it's going to be an outdoor movie, an outdoor screening of Spaceballs. This is actually an anniversary year for Spaceballs, and the actress who played Princess Vespa, Daphne Zuniga, will be in attendance at the outdoor movie. She'll be there to welcome the crowd; we're not sure how in-depth that will get; she'll be hanging out, which is huge for anybody who loves Spaceballs. Princess Vespa was a huge part of the film. [Friday, MFA lawn]

Can you give any credence to the rumor that David Cross might be making an appearance?

(Laughs) Not at this time, but that's a really good try.

Is the festival a Scientology-sponsored festival, or what is the relationship there? The way I asked the first question it might lead people to believe that is the case.

This is in no way a Scientology-led film festival. It does happen that one of our board members is a part of the Church of Scientology, and just like board member A, all of us do our part to bring sponsorships into the festival, so if we were to focus on if Scientology is a sponsor — which they are — then we should also focus on the fact that my Marriott's a sponsor. Everybody is asked and tries to bring in money for the festival, so yeah, they're a sponsor but it's in no way due to any leadership and special favors, no. We have about 50 sponsors; they're one of 50. I will say we appreciate their support. We're not the only nonprofit that they help; they're very community-oriented and even though that's not my religion, we will take supports and we appreciate anyone who is community-oriented and is willing to help us spread film around the community. [Editor's Note: Creative Loafing is a media sponsor of Sunscreen.]

Anything else our readers should know?

If you haven't had a chance to experience a film festival, I urge you to give Sunscreen a try in your first experience, because we're not only a festival of national independent film, but we focus on Florida film, we focus on the issues today, we focus on Florida, we focus on immigration, we focus on foreign film and there's probably a little bit of political stuff in there as well. We like to be current and we like the city to shine through it.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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