This weekend Atlantic City will change from a gambling destination to a silver-screen mecca when the 14th annual Garden State Film Festival descends on venues across the city from Thursday, March 31, through Sunday, April 3.

“We feel that it is very important to support the arts in Atlantic City in order to diversify the tourism profile,” says Larry Sieg, director of marketing for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “The Garden State Film Festival has proven to be a great event and a wonderful way for Atlantic City to appeal to another demographic other than the gambler.”

As the Garden State Film Festival gears up for its third year in Atlantic City, this year promises to bring even more films, events, celebrities and excitement.

“Since we moved to Atlantic City, we have had the most exciting celebrities and even more traffic than before,” says Margaret Fontana, executive director of the GSFF. This year, GSFF will feature international, domestic and local filmmakers, and screen 214 films from 17 different countries. “We are so excited to be hosting worldwide premieres of high-caliber films from England and all over the world.”

This year’s honoree and winner of the GSFF Independent Spirit Award is Sally Struthers, the Emmy-winning actress who has shined in roles on stage the screen, and has had a lifelong dedication to humanitarian work.

“Confused, I’m confused,” Struthers jokes about receiving this year’s Independent Spirit Award. “Have I done independent films? Sure, I’ve done a few and I will begin filming another right when I return home (from the Garden State Film Festival), but this is really such an honor and I’m so looking forward to visiting Atlantic City for the first time and catching up with my dear friend Ed (Asner, who is part of a panel).”

Struthers humbly credits her upbringing for her many years of philanthropic service with organizations such as the Christian Children’s Fund.

“I’ve tried very hard to be part of the solution and not the problem. I’m a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ as Archie Bunker would say,” claims Struthers, who will be presented her award at a special dinner on Sunday.

In addition to the award ceremony and screenings, the festival will feature a series of panels and workshops.

“The panels are very mainstream and will be touching on the topics we see in today’s news,” Fontana says. This series will feature an “Actors on Acting Panel” with Ed Asner, Struthers and Al Sapienza 7 p.m. Saturday in The Green Room at Resorts Casino Hotel. Also featured will be a “Stop Motion” workshop with Mark Shapiro from LAIKA, who will take the audience through the animation process that brought the Oscar-nominated feature films “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls” to the big screen at 24 frames per second. This event will be held 1 p.m. Saturday at the Claridge Hotel Ballroom.

Other presentations include Documenting History with filmmaker Jerri Rice, fresh from her historic trip to Cuba with President Barack Obama 1 p.m. Saturday and Activism and Hollywood with Michael Baldwin, Omar Sharif Jr. and Yoruba Richen who will discuss how Hollywood has impacted their activism and how they became advocates for LGBT rights, 1 p.m. Sunday. Both events will be held in The Green Room at Resorts. Individual tickets for the panels are $12 or included with the weekend pass.

The GSFF balances out its full schedule with some parties. Kicking off the festival 6:30 p.m. Thursday is the “Meet the Filmmakers Night,” a cocktail reception sponsored by Life of Riley Vodka at The Claridge Hotel’s Celebrity Theater. Following the reception, trailers of the films being shown at the festival will be screened.

On Friday, a Gala Cocktail Party will be held in the Ballroom at Resorts, which features live entertainment by Tony Day and Across the Globe Music Group. The first screening of the festival “Dough” will follow. Tickets for the Gala Party and screening are $25, or included with the weekend pass.

Finally, the black tie optional Awards Dinner will be held 6:30 p.m. Sunday in The Ballroom at The Claridge with a cocktail reception at the Holtzman Gallery. Tickets, which are $125, must be purchased in advanced and include dinner with a cash bar.

The 217 films will be screened in eight venues between Resorts, Claridge and Dante Hall throughout the weekend, with the majority of screenings taking place on Saturday. The films are generally divided into two-hour blocks. Each ticket to a block is $12, or $45 for a weekend pass that includes admission to all screening events as well as the Friday Night Gala Party, all panels, after parties and the screenplay reading. There is also a Saturday pass for $30 and a Sunday pass for $20.

Features reporter, Flavor magazine editor

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