Joe Restaino was the board president and director of programming for Tampa's Gasparilla Film Festival for several years. So he knows how to run a film festival.
Still, he encountered some real surprises, right from the start, when he started Bradenton's Skyway Film Festival.
"We had originally planned on screening 50 films," he said. "I thought we'd maybe get 100 submissions. At the Gasparilla Film Festival, it took us five years before we got to 100 submissions."
So the idea was that about half the films that were submitted would be shown, which means that some of the films would have been kind of average.
Instead, the festival, in its very first year, attracted about 250 submissions. Restaino was able to increase the schedule to include 62 films and still have only the best 25 percent.
The inaugural Skyway Film Festival runs Friday through Sunday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton. Besides those 62 films -- some of which are shorts -- the festival includes parties, concerts, celebrity appearances and discussions aimed at people aspiring to get into the film industry.
The celebs slated to be on hand include actor Jodie Sweetin, who was on "Full House" and who stars in the festival's opening night film "Walt Before Disney"; actor Andre Holland, who appeared in the films "Selma" and "42" and who is a regular on the TV series "The Knick"; and Ben Myrick, the co-writer and co-director of "The Blair Witch Project."
Sweetin will be on hand for the opening festivities. Holland will be there for a Sunday conversation about making the transition from acting on stage to acting in films and Myrick will talk about "The Blair Witch Project" on Saturday, shortly before a screening of the student film that became a cultural phenomenon.
"We were definitely caught off-guard," Myrick said of the response to the film, which he and Eduardo Sanchez made while they were students. "We got it into Sundance (Film Festival) and we thought maybe we'd get a little TV deal or something and help us get a foot in the door. We thought it we be kind of our calling-card film."
At the festival, Myrick, who grew up on Longboat Key and graduated from Riverview High School in Sarasota, will also host a screening of some clips of his new film, "Under the Bed," which stars Beverly D'Angelo.
"It's kind of based on a true story," Myrick said. "It's about a valet who steals a woman's keys while she's in the restaurant, makes copies and break into her house and lives under her bed taking videos of her."
The festival's emphasis is on independent films with strong stories, on emerging filmmakers and on films with a local connection. Many of the feature-length and short films were made, at least partly, in Bradenton and surrounding areas.
The festival will use just about every inch of space in the performing arts center, including both theaters and the upstairs area. A festival pass costs $75 and allows access to all events. Tickets for individual events are also available. Most films are $12 or $15.
Besides the event at the performing arts center, the festival includes a party and awards ceremony at Motorworks Brewing Company, 1014 Ninth St. W., Bradenton, from 9:45 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.
The $75 festival pass is the best deal for people who want to experience as much of the festival as possible, but a lot of people will only want to take in a few films.
Restaino said the three he would most want to see are "Night Owls" (5:15 p.m. Friday), a dramatic comedy that was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival this year; "A Sort of Homecoming" (2 p.m. Saturday), a drama about a New York professional who has to return to Louisiana and awkwardly relive her high school experiences; and "Across the Sea," a Turkish film about a woman who returns to Turkey with her American husband and confronts secrets from her past.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.