Sundance, Cannes and now Gasparilla

For most Tampa Bay area residents, Gasparilla means pirates, parades and parties. Thanks to some local visionaries, however, Tampa’s annual cultural event is about to assume a whole new meaning with the first-ever Gasparilla Film Festival, starting today and running through Sunday.

Aiming to expand the notoriety of Tampa’s burgeoning filmmaking community, the festival is the brainchild of Eric Odum, president of Tampa Film Institute, and Krista Soroka, the Hillsborough County film commissioner. In recent years, Tampa has truly evolved as an artistic community, and so the duo sought a way to incorporate a film event into the city’s best-known cultural tradition – Gasparilla. Coupling the newfound event with the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts seemed as the easiest and most logical way to promote the Gasparilla Film Festival.

“It’s one of those things people will highlight when they say they’re thinking about moving to Tampa,” said Sherri Simonetti, the festival’s executive director. “Economically, it helps attract people to live here and to draw tourists here.”

Featuring screenings, parties, and a rare glimpse of Tampa’s creative underbelly, the Gasparilla Film Festival may be the Bay area’s greatest artistic accomplishment yet. Each film will be judged by industry veterans, filmmakers and critics from across the nation. Attendees will be treated to several panel discussions, including appearances by celebrity guests such as screenwriter Wayne Beach (The Art of War, Murder at 1600) and actor David Coburn (the voice of the title character in 1990s animated show Captain Planet and the Planeteers). While most film screenings require a ticket, these panel discussions are free and open to the public.

However, the greatest advantage for the festival’s guests, according to Simonetti, is the interactivity it allows between audiences and the people behind the featured films.

“When you go to see a movie, people talk about it … and a film festival in particular adds to that cultural experience because … you get to talk to the filmmaker. You find out more about the film and the art of the film, and the art of making the film,” she said.

The festival’s selections are broken down into several categories. “Fun and Fear” covers a wide variety of comedies and horror films, while the Latin Panorama section of the “Showcase of the Americas” category pays homage to the Bay Area’s rich Hispanic heritage, with a collection of films connected to Latin America. In addition, Saturday marks the festival’s Student Day, offering Bay Area students the opportunity to attend the festival for only $5. This day’s schedule, which seems tailor-made for aspiring film students, highlights works from filmmakers ages nine through twenty-five, and features Campus Movie Fest, which presents the winning entries from the world’s largest student film festival.

Clearly, the festival aspires to foster excitement and creativity in the Bay Area, and Simonetti is confident that this positive effect will extend to the local economy as well, bolstering Tampa’s profile as a national attraction.

“This is the next big cultural thumbprint for the city of Tampa,” she said. “Tampa has a very large and growing arts community, and this is another aspect of that.”

Produced by the newly created Tampa Film Institute, the inaugural Gasparilla Film Festival offers local residents the chance to experience the talent residing in their own backyard. Tickets are now available online at