It started in 1999, with just a handful of films shown over the course of a weekend that almost no one outside of west central Florida knew anything about.
This year, the 15th annual Sarasota Film Festival will feature more than 200 films in 11 packed days, April 5-15. It's known and considered important by top film professionals all over the world.
"Sarasota is really respected in the industry," said Barbara Kopple. "(Festival director) Tom Hall really respects film and he really respects filmmakers. The way this festival treats people is wonderful."
Kopple is a documentary filmmaker. She's won two Oscars, for "Harlan County U.S.A. in 1976" and "American Dream in 1980. She also directed "Shut Up & Sing," the popular 2006 documentary about the Dixie Chicks.
She's coming to the Sarasota Film Festival for a screening of her new documentary, "Running From Crazy," which revolves around actor Mariel Hemingway and her family's history of depression and suicide. Seven members of Hemingway's family have delt with these issues, including her sister Margaux, a model and actor, and her legendary grandfather Ernest.
One thing Kopple said she especially likes about the Sarasota Film Festival is that it invites so many filmmakers to come to the festival for screenings and question-and-answer sessions.
"They fly so many filmmakers down there," she said in a phone interview from her Manhattan office. "That's really important for a filmmaker. You've been working in isolation for two-and-a-half year, and then you get a chance to see a screening and gauge people's reactions. There are 1,100 people coming to the screening of my film. That's incredible."
Less films, more time
The festival has been steadily expanding in scope and influence over the years, but actually the sheer number of films in this year's festival is slightly smaller than last year - down to 222 from 235. Hall said that's because that's because there aren't as many very short films.
"If you look at the total number of minutes of all the films, there's actually more this year," Hall said.
Hall said one thing that makes the Sarasota Festival special is diversity. The committee of people who selects films for the festival is small, but they have divergent tastes, and they're all committed to bringing the widest possible variety of films to the festival every year.
"We see far, far more new work than we could possible show," Hall said. "We want a great story, well told, but we also want a diverse selection. We could look at 30 films about Hurricane Sandy, for example, and they could all be fabulous, but we're not going to show 30 films about Hurricane Sandy."
This year's festival has definitely achieved it goal of diversity. Toward one end of the intellectual spectrum is Kopple's documentary, which examines depressions and suicide and their relation to artistry and creativity. Toward the other end is a flat-out horror flick called "No One Lives."
Brodus Clay, a Tampa-based professional wrestler -- his press materials refer to him as a "WWE superstar" and say he
"descended from Planet Funk" -- is one of the stars of "No One Lives," which is about a gang of criminals who take a family hostage and then become victims themselves.
It's the first film for Clay, who's a former substitute school teacher and the former bodyguard of Snoop Lion, the artist formerly know as Snoop Dogg. ("Brodus" is Snoop Lion's real last name.)
Clay describes himself as a film buff and an armchair critic.
"One of my favorite things is to go to movies, and I always have something to say about any movie I see," he said.
He's always been a fan of film festivals, although until recently he's only attended them "to snap pictures and to see movies."
"This is the first time I'll be on a red carpet," he said. "But I love film festivals. They give you a great opportunity to see movies that might not make it into general release."
"No One Lives" has had only one previous screening. Clay was there, and said the special effects in the film scared him almost as much as watching himself on screen for the first time.
"It was a double horror movie for me," he said. "The story was scaring me, and I was so scared by watching myself in a theater full of people that I shrank down into my chair as much as I could."
The festival's film selection process, Hall said, is a passionate one, because everyone involved with the festival cares deeply about film, but all have different tastes and interest. One key factor that makes the festival successful is that everyone respects each other's tastes even of they don't agree with it.
"I've been wrong before about films I thought were going to be popular or significant that weren't," he said. "And it's gone the other way too, We all trust each other, so if someone feels passionately about a film that I don't, I can defer to their judgment."
Films are of course the reason for the festival, but the festival is also about parties, receptions and unabashed celebrity-watching.
Hemingway, who has become an advocate for fighting mental illness through health an active lifestyle choices, is scheduled to appear at the festival to promote both the film and her new book, "The Willing Way," which comes out in April. Among other celebrities slated to appear are actors Lili Taylor, Cheryl Hines and Griffin Dunne and actor/director Peter Bogdanovich.
"What's exciting to me," festival director Tom Hall said, "Is that these are all legendary artist who are coming here with new work."
For a full schedule of films and events, and to purchase tickets, visit www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.