TAMPA — As a volunteer at the first annual Gasparilla International Film Festival in 2006, Mike Compton was given an unusual task. Call it guerilla marketing.
It seems there were so few people in attendance that year, organizers asked Compton to gather his fellow volunteers to fill seats in the theaters so the filmmakers attending thought they had large audiences.
On Tuesday, Compton — now the 36-year-old managing partner of production studio Lot 1901 in Ybor City — was one of an estimated 1,200 people attending the opening night party and film screening of the ninth annual Gasparilla International Film Festival at Tampa Theatre.
He was in awe at the size of the crowd already forming outside the historic downtown theater 30 minutes before the event was to kick off at 5:30 p.m.
“Never could I have envisioned the festival growing to this size,” Compton said. “It is simply amazing.”
Festival organizers are hoping to break last year’s overall attendance record of 13,500 by the time the event wraps up Sunday.
“The fact that type of attendance is possible says a lot about what Tampa looks for in film,” said Dale Gordon, Tampa-Hillsborough Film and Digital Media commissioner. “We’re not just about the Hollywood blockbusters. We’re also about those smaller films with great content.”
Still, much of the buzz on Tuesday night surrounded the biggest Hollywood celebrity in attendance — Sean Astin, known for his roles in “The Goonies,” “Rudy,” and as Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy.
Astin stars in the opening film at the Gasparilla festival, “The Surface,” about a man intent on suicide who stumbles upon a crashed floatplane and a survivor struggling to stay alive
Astin often portrays underdogs who overcome tremendous obstacles — the same position organizers of the the Gasparilla film festival found themselves six months ago.
Theater operators downtown weren’t making available enough screens to stage the film festival so its future looked grim.
Then Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik stepped up.
The new owner of Channelside Bay Plaza, Vinik offered to provide the festival rent-free access to the downtown mall’s movie theaters — closed in September 2012 — and the public donated the $20,000 to lease the necessary sound and projection equipment.
Today, the festival moves to Channelside Cinemas to screen the bulk of its 130 films — the most in the event’s history.
For a full schedule of festival films and events, visit www.gasparillafilmfestival.com.
Overall, this year’s Gasparilla film festival has 13 world premieres, four premieres and 20 Florida premieres.
“I can assure you that all of our films are of the highest quality,” said Rachel Feinman, president of the film festival. “If you visit our schedule online I am sure everyone can find something they like. And that is why we offer so many films this year — we want to offer something for everyone.”
That’s why one visitor, actor Armand Assante of “The Mambo Kings” fame, has been coming back since 2009.
Assante has been attending film festivals since 1986 when a film in which he starred, “Belizaire the Cajun,” was the toast of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
“I know film festivals and Gasparilla’s organizers have an eye for great films,” Assante said in a phone interview. “And the audiences treat the films with respect. At some film fests, people attend to be seen. In Tampa, they attend to see the films. Filmmakers know that so want to be chosen to show at Gasparilla.”
Assante will arrive in Tampa later in the week to attend the world premiere of his feature film, “Leaves of the Tree,” about a dying man desperate for a life-saving cure who follows a country doctor to Sicily and is enmeshed in a mystery dating to the time of the apostles.
“Leaves of the Tree” shows 7:40 p.m. Saturday at Channelside.
“That’s why people need to attend as many films as they can,” said Compton, with Lot 1901. “The stars don’t just come out for opening night. They’re sprinkled throughout the festival.”
That sentiment is echoed by Nick Naylor of Tampa, whose movie “Illusions,” about a woman trying to regain control of her life as the people closest to her begin to die mysteriously, screens 11 p.m. Thursday at Channelside.
The film stars fitness model and self-described “Scream Queen of Horror” Krista Grotte, who is scheduled to attend.
“I’ve randomly seen all types of stars at this festival over the years,” Naylor said. “One year I saw Jerry Springer and the next year I saw Colin Farrell. That’s what makes film festivals so much fun.”
Farrell attended the Gasparilla film festival in 2013 to see the “The Fix,” winner of the Audience Award for Best Short Narrative Film.
The director and star of that film, brothers Ante and Kresh Novakovic, respectively, are back in Tampa for this year’s festival because they direct and star in “Leaves of the Tree” with Assante.
“I had such a great experience at Gasparilla the first time,” Ante Novakovic said. “It is where I wanted to premiere my film. I’ve been to film fests around the world and Gasparilla is up there with the best.”