Learning the Movie Business

USF English Professor Phillip Sipiora helps his students get involved in feature films, both in front of and behind the camera.

(l-r) Gasparilla International Film Festival President Joe Restaino, USF English Professor Philip Sipiora, USF student Brad Martin and Festival Advisory Board member Erik Lunseth on the set of “Chu and Blossom,” slated for release next year. Photos: Bobby Blish


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 27, 2012) – With a growing reputation as a great place to produce films and showcase them at local festivals, Tampa is catching the eye of more directors and actors.

And students at the University of South Florida are benefiting.

USF students are gaining access to the movie business through the efforts of USF English Professor Phillip Sipiora and local film festival organizers.

Sipiora, a specialist on Kubrick and other major contemporary filmmakers, teaches noteworthy courses on film. As much as he promotes watching and thinking about films critically, he also expounds on the importance of getting involved behind the scenes. That’s why he gets his students working on locally-produced films whenever possible. 

It helps that he serves on the Gasparilla International Film Festival advisory board which keeps him up-to-date on what’s happening locally in the film business – a scene that is growing more active.

For one student, just paying attention to Sipiora’s announcements at the beginning of class in the course Film and Culture landed him a coveted job.

“I heard the word ‘intern’ and immediately took down the information,” said Brad Martin, an international studies major.

An email and a phone call later, Martin held the job title of production assistant intern on the production of “Chu and Blossom,” a film slated to be released next year. Within days he was embarking on an experience of a lifetime. 

The independent feature-length film, which just wrapped up shooting this month, provided more than 50 USF students with jobs as production assistants and extras to add to their resumes – without having to leave town. And they’ll be able to see the results at next year’s Gasparilla International Film Festival March 19-24.

While Martin doesn’t see himself working in films as a career, he is thrilled about this “once in a lifetime opportunity” to be an integral part of a professional production. With his concentration in Middle East affairs, he hopes to be an intelligence analyst someday, ideally with the Defense Intelligence Agency.  

Martin was shocked when he was contacted by the film’s producers offering an internship. Without hesitation, he said, “I’ll take it!”

Going to the movies is now a whole new experience for him.

“I can’t look at them the same way anymore,” he said. “I definitely look at films more analytically. To say it’s been an eye-opening experience is an understatement. I would recommend doing this to anyone, it’s very fulfilling. The hours are long and it can be both mentally and physically draining, but in the end I really didn’t mind the hours.” 

Screenwriter Ryan O’Nan would have welcomed an opportunity like Martin’s when he was in college. He has enjoyed sharing the experience of filmmaking with students. “I only wish more people had done that with me.”

Wearing the hats of producer, writer and actor on the film he wrote, O’Nan was convinced to shoot “Chu and Blossom” in Tampa after his movie "Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best" won Gasparilla's Audience Award and where he won the festival’s “Rising Star” award. By the end of this shoot he said, “Tampa really has a lot to offer the film community.”

Joe Restaino, president of the Gasparilla Festival and Erik Lunseth, who serves on the organization’s board of directors, urged O’Nan to make the film in Tampa. The city offers a variety of locations and great weather.

“Money goes a longer way here than in places like Los Angeles and New York for example,” said Restaino, who also is a co-producer of the film. He travels to festivals around the country not only to find films to show but also to promote Tampa Bay. 

Lunseth added, “This film would have cost so much more to do elsewhere but with Florida’s tax incentives, it made perfect sense to shoot it here.”

In Florida, filmmakers are eligible for tax credits of 20 percent of the money spent in the state, plus there is a 5 percent incentive for family-friendly subject matter along with another 5 percent for choosing to shoot during hurricane season. “Chu and Blossom,” a comedy about a Korean exchange student who befriends a local misfit, met those conditions.


Restaino, who works as a vice president at Merrill Lynch, also likes to remind everyone how great filmmaking is for this area and why producers should be given even more incentives.


“What’s so great about all of this for Tampa Bay is that film production companies hire local people in so many different categories. For example local caterer Stone Chef was awarded the craft services contract to provide meals for the crew at all of their locations, there have been over 500 nights of hotel bookings and people rent equipment and cars, and the production leased space at the International Academy of Design and Technology. And everyone they employ spends money.”


To back up his point further, Restaino likes to draw attention to an economic impact study that was done by the Louisiana Film Commission. It showed that for every single dollar of tax credits a film production gets at least $5.71 generated in return.


Another advantage to the area is the assortment of styles of buildings and the mixture of urban, suburban and rural settings in relatively close proximity to each other.


The day the crew was shooting at downtown Tampa’s historic train station, co-director Gavin Kelly was able to get a small town feel. Ocala, Plant City, Lakeland, Largo’s Heritage Park and even Hillsborough High School also provided “anywhere in America” settings.

The film stars O’Nan and Charles Chu, an actor well-known in his native Korea who is sharing the director’s credit with Kelly. Local actors made up nearly half of the cast of 40 in addition to local extras who numbered as many as 200 when they shot in Largo.

Sipiora has invited Restaino and Lunseth and other production crew members to speak to his classes about filmmaking and about their experiences in the film industry. Every chance he gets to demystify and decode the inner workings of what he considers one of the greatest art forms of our time, he is glad to do so.

In all his film classes, Sipiora emphasizes the importance of subtle rhythms and textures in film production. As he says, “Relating to film is an act of engagement,” and “students appreciate a movie much more when they understand what is going on beneath the surface in film production.”

He expects there will be more opportunities to come.

“I’ll be deeply gratified to see Tampa emerge as a film capital someday and between Gasparilla and the talented people we have at USF, more great films will come from here. It’s just a matter of time and spreading the word,” Sipiora said.

For more information about the Gasparilla International Film Festival, click here or visit http://www.gasparillafilmfestival.com/.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.