Big Crowds, Big Stars, and Big Controversy at the 2004 Sarasota Film Fest
by Jason Guerrasio
As many from the frigid northeast and areas abroad ventured down to Florida's Gulf Coast for 10 days of films, parties, and celebrity sightings, a sense of uncertainty hung over the sixth-annual Sarasota Film Festival. Much of the talk around town early in the festival was not about the quality films and lavish events coming up in the week ahead, but that no one had yet been named to receive the festival's Career Achievement award. Though the black-tie gala where the award is given out was virtually sold out before the festival began, the question of who the honor would go to lingered for most of the festival. That would not be the only snag this year's festival would have to endure.
The festivities began on January 23 with the world premiere of Gil Junger's "If Only" at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Known for his 1999 teen comedy "Ten Things I Hate About You," Junger explores a deeper subject in this film as we follow one couple's bumpy relationship that gets a second chance in the most peculiar way. With the great cast of Jennifer Love Hewitt (who's also a producer on the film), Paul Nicholls, and Tom Wilkinson, the real triumph of the film is its script by Christina Welsh, whose blend of wit and comedy with the dramatic subject works well. Junger, Welsh, and Hewitt (wearing a dress reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe's in "The Seven Year Itch") were all present to unveil the film. Junger and Hewitt were rushed back on stage to kill time after the film started with some projection problems; the two were good sports and entertained the crowd until the problem was solved.
The screening followed with the 1,750 in attendance converging to the Grand Foyer to enjoy drinks and the tunes of DJ Le Spam and the Spam Allstars. B-Movie expert Joe Bob Briggs, who was at the festival to host a special evening, was in attendance, along with Hewitt (two gigantic bodyguards kept a close eye on her), and Sam Elliott and Valentina De Angelis, who were spotted talking to fans about their film "Off The Map." The coming of age film directed by Campbell Scott, which will be released in April, played to sellout crowds at the festival and received its audience award for best drama.
The second evening's event has quickly become a favorite for the festivalgoers. CineSymphony! brought another sold-out crowd to the Van Wezel, where conductor Emil de Cou and the Florida West Coast Symphony played 12 pieces that spanned 70 years of Oscar-nominated works. Some of the composers highlighted were Max Steiner ("King Kong" and "Gone with the Wind"), Bernard Herrmann ("Citizen Kane" and "North by Northwest"), and John Williams ("Schindler's List," "The Empire Strikes Back," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"). The evening is one that both film buffs and fans of the symphony can equally enjoy.
As the festival pressed on there were many films to see (140 in total) including nine world premieres and eight U.S. debuts. Along with "Off The Map," Vincent Sassone's "A Tale of Two Pizzas," which can be best described as "Romeo and Juliet met in a pizza parlor," received the audience award for best comedy, and Billy Crystal's daughter, Lindsay Crystal, was awarded the audience award for best documentary for "My Uncle Berns." Exploring the life of her artistic uncle from his rough childhood to his memories of D-Day, and recently surviving September 11th in his nursing home just blocks away from the Twin Towers, the documentary is a touching look at Berns' life and how he expresses it in his art. Along with Lindsay Crystal, her parents (who both executive produced the film) were present to root their daughter on. In the middle of an audience Q&A, Lindsay was given a phone to call Berns and when he answered the audience erupted in applause. Berns gave praise to his niece, taking moments to hold back his emotions, and then hung up. In the crowd Billy Crystal, eyes tearing up, looked on in delight.
One change from previous festivals was the amount of people who came out for the films. In the past, many of the sold-out screenings were those held in the evenings at the end of the week and on the weekends, but this year saw huge crowds at the short films in the early afternoon and continuing throughout the day. The reason for this was the strong lineup of films the festival had this year, as program director Mark Marvell boasts, "it's the best lineup we've ever had." Audiences could choose from "indiewood" hits like "Touching the Void," "The United States of Leland," and "Monster," to lesser-known one's like Miramax's hilarious "Shaolin Soccer" and THINKFilm's "Story of the Weeping Camel" and "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself." There were also many impressive short films. Some that stood out were James J. Cullinane's charming "Persistence," about a wheel chair-bound assisted living resident who's determined to escape the home on a very special day (Film Movement has picked up the short). Other highlights included Katja Esson's "Ferry Tales," which has been nominated for an Oscar in the short subject documentary category, and Domenic Silipo's thought provoking look at a friendship that reaches its breaking point, "Mimmo & Paulie." To Silipo's surprise, he was awarded the festival's Emerging Filmmaker award. The prize, developed by Kodak and Universal Studios Production Group Florida, is a $1,000 film grant, and three days of backlot or soundstage use. Silipo was so surprised that he had to run out and buy a tie for the tribute dinner where he would receive the award. "This film is really important to me. I wouldn't be as passionate about it if I didn't think it was worthwhile to see," Silipo told indieWIRE. "I'm just really happy that it left such an impact here."
In the middle of the week Patrick Stewart arrived to premiere his film "The Lion In Winter," which will play on Showtime later in the year. Talking to the audience before the film, he was very open about his work on stage, but when the "Trekkies" had questions Stewart wanted nothing to do with it. "There's no reason to ask me anything technical about 'Star Trek' because I couldn't understood half of what I was saying," says the former Captain of the Starship Enterprise. "I have a hard enough time watching coverage of the Mars Rover." Stewart was also honored at the festival's annual Luncheon Under the Banyans at the beautiful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
The next evening brought the World Cinema Celebration. Even with unseasonably cold weather the turnout for the block party was respectable as the crowd sampled some of the multi-ethnic cuisine the area has to offer while listening to jazz vocalist Chiara Civello. After the food was all gone most stood by tables equipped with heaters or moved into the bars surrounding the event. Mario Van Peebles (donning a Sarasota Film Festival T-Shirt), who stars in "Crown Heights" which played in the festival, could be spotted partying at one bar. Two nights later brought Night of 1,000 Stars at Michael's on East. The event has quickly become the one evening of the festival where everyone gets nuts, and brings out the most interesting evening attire. Some of the stars present were Brad Renfro and Betty Buckley, who star in "The Mummy An' The Armadillo," which had its world premiere at the festival, Wendie Malick who stars in "Raising Genius," but the one who got the most stares was Sarasota native Stephen Root, who's know best for playing Milton, the guy who has a fetish for Swingline staplers in cult fave "Office Space."
As the festival wound into the home stretch the tribute dinner honoree was finally announced. Robert Benton, the legendary screenwriter of "Bonnie and Clyde," director of "Kramer vs. Kramer," and most recently "The Human Stain," received the award. Also honored at the $275-a-plate event at the Ritz Carlton were Louise Fletcher (who stars in "Finding Home" which played the festival) and Woody Harrelson (who is the subject of Ron Mann's documentary, "Go Further" which also played) who both received the Excellence in Cinema award. Paula Wagner and Justin Henry were there to pay tribute to Benton, and Paul Newman gave his praise on a videotaped message done at a racetrack. A big reason why it was so difficult to find someone to honor this year was due to the date changes of the Golden Globes ceremony and the Oscar nominations, which both happened in the middle of the festival. Talks have begun about perhaps changing the festival date to later in the year.
But as the smoke settled on one problem, another arose during the award announcements. The eight-member jury voting on what films would get the Best Narrative and Best Documentary awards decided to instead allocate the monies for the awards to seed a development fund for emerging Florida filmmakers. [Disclosure: indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell served as one of the eight jurors.] One jury member read a written statement to the audience of upset filmmakers. "After much discussion, we [the jury] felt that the best contribution we could make was not to award traditional prizes to individual films or filmmakers. Rather, we feel that the most dynamic use of the prize monies would be in the formation of an emerging Florida filmmakers' fund for the cultivation of the enormous talent in the region." Though the news left a sour taste for the filmmakers in competition, it didn't bother the crowds showing up to see films. "If anything this will increase the quality of the films that are in the competition for next year and beyond," says Gary Springer of Springer Associates PR, who handles publicity for the festival.
Regardless of the small distractions throughout this year's festival, it's safe to say it was another successful year. Ticket sales are to double the amount sold last year and Sarasota continues to attract big-name stars and talented up-and-coming filmmakers. "They seem really organized," says Jennifer Atkins, whose short film "If You Step on a Crack" is currently on the festival circuit. "I was so surprised by the turnout for the shorts." For "Vernie" director David Tufford, this festival marked the first one he's ever been to and the Minnesota native was happy to "play somewhere that didn't have only friends and family in the audience." And for Vincent Sassone, director of "A Tale of Two Pizzas," he couldn't be more pleased with the experience. "Most of the cast and crew had never seen the film on the big screen with an audience so for the festival to bring everyone down here was just unbelievable."