New Films and Festival Excitement

By staff March 12, 2010

The Sarasota Film Festival begins April 9, but you don’t need to wait until then to take a sneak peek at some promising new features and a powerful documentary.

At 7 p.m. March 20, an organization called Universal Film Focus is presenting a premiere screening of the comedy Expecting Mary at the Historic Asolo Theater in the Ringling Museum visitors’ center.

Elliott Gould, Lainie Kazan, Cloris Leachman, Cybill Shepherd, rocker Gene Simmons and Della Reese are featured in this story of a young girl who learns about love and family in an unlikely place—a run-down trailer park. Starring in the title role is Olesya Rulin, well-known to teenagers through her appearances in the first three High School Musical movies. Rulin will be attending the screening. Tickets are $25.

But if you’re a real film buff who can handle not one but several movies on March 20, you might consider being part of the Film Forecast Focus Group.

From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Historic Asolo, up to 50 people will have the chance to play movie critic and share their opinions of three films with industry representatives. The titles aren’t being announced ahead of time, so viewers won’t be influenced if they read about the productions on the Internet. “We want people to come in without any preconceptions or expectations,” says Craig Prater, who is helping coordinate the event for Universal Film Focus.

But he did say the first film is a comedic drama starring two well-known actors “and the grandson of a Hollywood icon.” The film didn’t get a theatrical release and is going straight to video. “The audience reaction will help the filmmakers determine how they’re going to promote it,” Prater says.

The second film is a 15-minute short. “The filmmakers are raising funds to turn it into a feature film,” Prater says. “The audience reaction will help them determine whether it has the potential to be a full-length film.”

The final film is a “heavy-duty documentary” about child rape in Africa, according to Prater. He says the central figure was featured on the CNN “Heroes” show at the end of the year. According to my research, that would be Betty Makoni, a Zimbabwe native who founded the Girl Child Network, which helps victims of sexual abuse.

How do you know you’re the target audience for this focus group? The group’s promotional material has some clever tips:

-Must have the ability to loll the day away watching films

-Must be able to lift 32 oz. of soda and the occasional 64 oz. of popcorn

-Opinions are required. If you have no opinions, please do not apply.

Tickets to the Film Forecast Focus Group are $200. The ticket includes admission to the three afternoon movies and the screening of Expecting Mary, a mid-day lunch and an evening reception with visiting filmmakers. For information about the daytime and evening events, go to, or call (702) 982-0587.

Enthusiastic reaction to Ringling Festival.

Audience members at the Ringling International Arts Festival announcement this week were so excited that they immediately begin filling out their ticket orders in the lobby of the Ringling visitors’ pavilion.

Couples were in animated discussions about how many performances they could fit in –an evening of dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov, the world premiere of a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, and perhaps a puppet show from the Czech Republic and a concert of Bach and Philip Glass by violinist Tim Fain.

The scene reminded me of the glory days of the Van Wezel 20 years ago. Back then, managing director and consummate showman Curt Haug convinced patrons that they needed to fill out their order forms as soon as they arrived in the mail. And hundreds of people did. The traffic at the main post office was so heavy that extra workers were stationed at the curb to pick up the forms as motorists drove by and rolled down their windows. Haug even arranged for a jazz band to play at the post office entrance.

It’s nice to see that the Ringling festival seems to be generating a similar amount of enthusiasm.

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