Sarasota Film Festival Celebrates Independent Cinema for Twenty Years and Counting

From eight films to over 200 in just 20 years, the Sarasota Film Festival has cemented itself among indie movie fans and Hollywood players alike.

It's lights, camera, and a whirlwind of indie film action when the Sarasota Film Festival rolls its reels into town each year in April. This hallmark Sarasota event, now two decades in, has established itself among the premier independent film festivals in the southeastern United States.

Featuring over 200 films, an array of red carpet-reminiscent parties and posh events, celebrity appearances, intimate conversations with filmmakers, and a powerful youth-oriented focus on education and independent cinema immersion: the Sarasota Film Festival is a must-attend for film fanatics of all ages. 

"I would say that if someone has never been to the festival, it's one of the most fun things you can do here in Sarasota,” says SFF Director of Education, Paul Ratner. “If you feel like experiencing movies, meeting stars, and attending parties with filmmakers; this is the event for you." 

Entering its 21st year, SFF descends on Sarasota on April 5, and runs through April 14, 2019.

How A Miniature Film Fest Became a Sprawling Cinematic Extravaganza

In 1999, SFF emerged as a "mini film festival" sponsored by Sarasota civic and business leaders. The "mini fest" featured just eight independent films and a gala fundraiser, and included appearances from actors likeJon Favreau, Marlee Matlin, Jonathan Silverman, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Sarsgaard, and Samantha Mathis.

Compared to this year’s large-scale festival — over 200 film screenings across the downtown Sarasota Hollywood 11 movie theatre, Sarasota's signature art deco Municipal Auditorium, and the glitzy Sarasota Opera House —the inaugural Sarasota Film Festival seems humble in retrospect, but its impact is immeasurable. 

SFF has flourished and blossomed into the ten-day event that now spreads throughout Sarasota's walkable downtown, drawing festival attendees from across the nation and internationally, as well as scores of leading actors, directors, and filmmakers who visit the arts-minded beach town for the festival each year in April.

The Sarasota Film Festival was named among the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World following its 20th run in 2018, and in recent years has drawn cinema's leading figures to the Sarasota sunshine. Werner Herzog, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Jason Momoa, Sydney Pollack, Geena Davis, Brooke Shields, Gena Rowlands and Patrick Stewart are a few to make appearances.

Although the Sarasota Film Fest generates most of its buzz in April, the modern SFF also offers free year-round events and workshops, as well as an award-winning educational program that accesses students in the Florida Gulf Coast region, as well as across the nation. 

"I think one big thing we are working on this year — and how we'd like to see the festival going forward — is to offer much more year round programing," says Ratner. 

In addition to year-round local SFF programs such as the educational "Reel Talk" with the Sarasota County School Board and a classic film program, the Sarasota Film Festival hosts the thrilling Insta Film Festival — a timed filmmaking competition that takes place during SFF and is screened on the final day. 

SFF also works alongside Sarasota's Embracing Our Differences annual public art exhibition, which features international artists and draws visitors from across the globe.