Sarasota Film Festival : A feast of movies, stars and parties

jholmes@bradenton.comApril 4, 2010 

Welcome to the 12th year of the Sarasota Film Festival, where fantastic films, filmmakers and an assortment of Hollywood stars await.

This year’s fanfare surrounds 168 films that span 30 countries; the parties, which features one for youth and several for adults; and the celebrities, which include appearances by Kevin Kline, Steve Buscemi, Ben Foster and more.

After overcoming a variety of financial struggles last year, festival organizers have found more than the obvious star-studded celluloid reasons to celebrate this time around.

“It was a very difficult situation,” Mark Famiglio, film festival board president, said of leading last year’s event for the first time after executive director Jody Kielbasa resigned. “But I think we’ve landed on our feet. We’re very stable and we’ve grown.”

There are new things to look forward to this year, as the excitement of the 10-day festival kicks off Friday with the opening-night film “The Extra Man,” starring Kline and Paul Dano. The comedy is about a would-be writer named Louis (Dano) who moves in with the mysterious Henry (Kline). Louis soon discovers that his new roomie earns his living as a social companion to elderly women in high society.

“It’s a really light comedy,” said Tom Hall, festival artistic director. “In the past we’ve had a lot of comedies that are hit or miss, but this is a very, very good movie with Kevin Kline, who won the Oscar for ‘A Fish Called Wanda.’ This is a return to form for him. A return to comedy.”

Local interest in the film can be seen in ticket sales, which, for the opening night film, are up from last year, said Hall. Earlier last week, it was announced that the film was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures.

What’s new this year

Hall, the festival’s former programming director, has a new role this year as artistic director.

Though Hall is still involved in film programming, his new title has allowed him to focus on new festival projects, such as the staged reading of Buscemi’s unproduced work “Queer.” The script reading is part of the new festival component called The Investor’s Lab, which serves as a forum on film investment.

Hall has been working on the reading project since October. Notable Hollywood actors will participate in the event at 7:30 p.m. April 16 at Florida Studio Theatre; tickets are $50. Details on who those actors are will be unveiled soon.

Hall believes this new element of the festival is sure to attract a crowd.

“This is a community that loves the art of acting, theater and the discovery of a live performance,” he said. “We want to put more and more of that into the festival.”

Famiglio, is excited about The Investor’s Lab, which will bring several film projects, national film financiers, prominent film school deans and other industry movers and shakers together under one roof. The lab will feature panel discussions and presentations, some of which will allow area residents to learn how to properly finance films.

“As a sidebar to that, we’ll get a lot of visibility nationally,” said Famiglio. “The idea here is that we’re encouraging them to acquaint themselves with our town and acquaint themselves to our region as an area where they should be making films.”

Returning favorites

The lab will join a list of other interactive events the festival offers, such as the “In Conversation With ...” series featuring Kline; Don Hahn of Disney’s “Waking Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast;” Patricia Clarkson of “Shutter Island” and “The Untouchables,” and Vincent D’Onofrio of “Full Metal Jacket” and “Men In Black.”

Another interactive event, the Filmmaker Tribute on April 17, will honor director John Landis, a master of American film comedies such as “Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Coming to America.” Landis also directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“He’s one of the most dynamic, hilarious speakers that you’ve ever heard in your life,” said Hall. “We’re going to be sitting on stage having an hour-long conversation about his work and career. ... He really is an unbelievable storyteller. It’s going to be a really amazing night.”

And if you think it couldn’t get any better, there’s the closing night film — “Saturday Night,” a documentary that takes you behind the scenes of “Saturday Night Live.” The film, directed by James Franco, features a cast that includes Fred Armisen, Will Forte, Bill Hader, John Malkovich and Seth Meyers.

Festival organizers are still pinning down “SNL” guests to attend the April 18 screening.

Surviving last year

Believe it or not, at this time last year many people wondered if the Sarasota Film Festival would come to a sudden halt.

When longtime executive director Kielbasa stepped down and the event was swimming in a sea of debt, everything was up in the air. People wondered if the 2009 event would be a success if even attempted.

Only time would tell, and when it did, the numbers were in the film festival’s favor.

“Everything was great, all things considered,” said Hall of last year. “It was a very successful event for us. We had great attendance. Our numbers were up across the board and we’re looking to grow again this year.”

Famiglio, who’s been involved with the festival since its inception, took over leading the festival.

He faced the same difficulties many corporations faced last year — trimming things back financially during the worst economic climate in the nation’s recent history. On top of that, the festival had mounting debt of more than $600,000, he said.

Now, in less than two years, festival expenses have been sliced by more than 50 percent thanks to cost-cutting efforts.

Last year the festival ended in the black for the first time in years.

“In other words, the operation had paid for itself,” said Famiglio, who volunteers his time as festival president. That figure excludes the debt from previous festivals.

Festival organizers hope the event will thrive with innovations such as stage readings, the lab and film-based activities for youth, “It’s important to efficiently expand it so that one of the main missions of the film festival is to support independent film and to encourage tourism to Manatee and Sarasota counties,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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