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Spotlight: Miami and Sarasota

It’s not every regional film fest that gets Aerosmith to rock its closing night party. But then, the Sarasota Film Festival is emerging as one of the edgier, more interesting entrants on the scene.

Couple that with the sophisticated world cinema focus of the Miami Film Fest, now being helmed by Sundance vet Nicole Guillemet, and you can banish the word “backwater” from the Florida festival scene.

Sarasota event, which turns six this year, landed Aerosmith for last year’s UnWrap party at the Hyatt Sarasota as part of a tribute to Grammy-winning movie producer Jack Douglas. Douglas had worked with Steven Tyler’s group, as well as Cheap Trick, whose Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander also attended.

Rain Phoenix performed with her band Paper Cranes, and ex-New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter, was on hand as a presenter and partygoer.

Resort town on Florida’s Gulf Coast was originally known for traditional black-tie affairs, but exec director Jody Kielbasa has been steering it in a younger direction and appealing to the area’s artsy population.

Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon, Ally Sheedy and William H. Macy turned up last year, along with Olympia Dukakis, Rita Moreno and Richard Dreyfuss. Composer Elmer Bernstein, who scored Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” was honored, and conducted Florida’s West Coast Symphony in a concert of his greatest scores.

A world cinema street party was a big hit, with crowd embracing the spotlight film “Bollywood/Hollywood,” whose director Deepa Mehta was in attendance, and received audience award for comedy.

Event has grown from three to 10 days since its inception, and clocked admissions of close to 30,000 last year, while showing 65 features, 11 docus and 86 short films.

For 2004, Sarasota’s dates are Jan. 23- Feb. 1, placing it in overlap with older sister Miami, which has slated its 21st edition for Jan. 30-Feb. 8.

Fests are carving out different constituencies, though, with Miami eyeing Spain and Latin America for a special focus.

Last year, Guillemet introduced the “Encuentros Miami” program that brought in seven up-and-coming filmmakers from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, and focused on introducing their work to distributors, co-producers, and possible financiers.

“Our goal is to nurture the next generation of filmmakers,” Guillemet says.

Overall program was a hit, drawing 40,000 paid admissions to a record 65 films and introducing a competitive program. Dramatic feature kudos went to “Nada,” a farce from Cuban helmer Juan Carlos Cremata, about a postal worker who pens responses to random letters. Brazil’s “Something in the Air,” directed by Helvecio Ratton, got a special jury citation.

Florida-based filmmakers Victor Nunez (“Ulee’s Gold,” “Ruby in Paradise”) was on the dramatic jury, along with Mexican film producer Jorge Sanchez and Michele Maheux of the Toronto Film Festival.

On the lighter side, Miami also features free outdoor screenings on South Miami Beach. Last year’s four-film series, “Beachstock,” which had a musical theme and screened “Hairspray,” “Stop Making Sense,” “Victor/Victoria” and “Grease,” drew 6,000 attendees.

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