Savannah Film Festival
People are drawn to Savannah, Georgia, craving her spiritual seduction like a siren’s call. Tickle any of the city’s historic walls and they’ll whisper a secret or two. A few years back you might have heard that actor Peter O’Toole and film critic Roger Ebert were spotted strolling down Broughton Street together. That’s just part of the late October dream sequence that is the Savannah Film Festival.
This eight-day exploration of cinema unfolds in and around the heart of Savannah’s historic district, and the festival—from day one—has distinguished itself from others. The secret recipe is a combination of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), budding filmmakers, film industry professionals, visiting movie buffs, and a cast of equally enthusiastic locals that mingle together in a relatively small area within the city. In 2012 the festival celebrated its 15th anniversary, and for good reason. Films are entered by students, independent and seasoned filmmakers around the world; screened in restored vintage theaters; and cash and other prizes are awarded, all within the mystery and charm of an antebellum setting.
Whether it’s at a hotel, festival venue, shop or restaurant, your access to those in showbiz goes beyond what you’ll find at any other movie festival. Take in a few flicks, workshops, panel discussions or lectures, and it becomes apparent that you, too, are one of the Hollywood bunch—for a while anyway.
“We’ve always known that we were not a velvet-rope festival,” says Danny Filson, director of External Relations at SCAD. He and colleague Len Cripe, executive director of the college’s Trustees Theater, recall when SCAD co-founder and president Paula Wallace first came to them with the idea of a film festival. It was August of 1998, a time of year when the city’s untamable heat and humidity squeeze like wisteria.
”‘I think it should be in the fall,’” Filson recalls Wallace saying. He and Cripe agreed and suggested that they spend the next few months networking and attending other film festivals. That way an autumn 1999 launch would surely be a success. But the two men, no doubt, felt the mercury rise that day when the president of SCAD clarified: “No, I mean this fall.”
“That’s vintage Paula Wallace,” laughs Filson, who also serves as the executive director of the Savannah Film Festival. “That’s just the way it is.”
Wallace says that the film festival idea was her way of keeping SCAD students wishing to enter the entertainment industry ahead of the curve.
Pitching a university-based film festival brought its challenges. It conjured images of bad 35mm projections screened in the dank student union of a small art school.
“SCAD university-wide enrollment at the time was nearly 4,000,” Wallace remembers, “and film and digital media were among our fastest-growing majors. The college has since grown to more than 11,000 students worldwide, and the film festival has become one of SCAD’s most anticipated annual events.”
Pitching a university-based film festival brought its challenges. It conjured images of bad 35mm projections screened in the dank student union of a small art school. But SCAD knows nothing if not the importance of presentation. At that point, dating back to 1975, a mix of 40 movies and television shows had been filmed in Savannah, including the film version of John Berendt’s 1994 The New York Times best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil just a year before. The city itself was enjoying a coming-out party, and to have her on your arm was to pique the interest of those intrigued by a wealth of curiosities. City ties to cultural personalities like Girl Scouts of the USA founder Juliette Gordon Low, singer and songwriter Johnny Mercer, and author Flannery O’Connor, as well as countless historical sites, are Savannah’s calling card. SCAD unrolled all of that as a backdrop and then set about convincing the film industry: “Oh, by the way, we really know what we’re doing.”
“Fifteen years ago was the start of the whole transition from film to video to digital,” Cripe says. “SCAD’s large film and video production program was leading education in those fields. So when we first started it was really proving ourselves to the distributors, to the filmmakers—from major studios and the independent side—and to the short-film makers that we could respect their work and show it in a respectful, professional manner.”
The film festival began building its solid reputation immediately, and that afforded audiences early looks at big Academy Award contenders. Over the festival’s decade-and-a-half run, opening night screenings have included The Remains of the Day, Sideways and Black Swan.
During each festival there is a Director’s Choice showing which remains a mystery until its opening credits. In 2011, The Muppets received a mixed response, but ultimately ended up with a packed theater of fans singing its theme song.
The crux of the Savannah Film Festival is education. Professor Michael Chaney teaches film and television at SCAD and, like others on the festival production staff, he chooses to take on additional responsibilities in preparation of and during the big event. Uncommon opportunities arise and he ensures his students are ready for them.
“I make certain, in particular with my seniors and grad students, that they have business cards with their contact information. We talk about not accosting celebrity guests, but treating them like anyone else that you would meet at a function,” Chaney explains.
Everyone should take cues from his list of don’ts. Don’t ask for an autograph. Don’t ask for a job. Instead, ask for an opinion and engage in a warm discussion, Chaney recommends.
During the festival, guests from the motion picture industry completely fill the oldest hotel in Savannah, The Marshall House. This 1851 structure served as a hospital for soldiers during the Civil War, and it has the ghost stories to prove it. But while the festival runs, being there equals being in the right place at the right time. Coffee Talks take place most mornings in The Marshall House lobby. Early birds present during these chats and at master classes have been lucky enough to hear from actors such as Sir Ian McKellen, Alec Baldwin and Gabby Sidibe.
The Savannah Film Festival shines by affording people who become successful a chance to give back. “I really like that it’s mostly about the students,” says Academy Award-nominee for Best Actress Sidibe, who spoke to students in 2012. They were keen to hear from the star of the movie Precious, but she says the feeling was mutual. “I just love them. They’re all nuggety and young and hungry for knowledge,” Sidibe says.
The festival doesn’t have much separation between big names and self—proclaimed “ordinary Joes.”
“You sort of get to create a camaraderie with all the people that are running the festival which is really fun,” recalls Sidibe. “And there’s a party every night.” These gatherings include festival honorees, staff, students and fans—should they purchase the right festival pass.
At the Savannah Film Festival, everyone is trying to further a project. The discussions are about work, and you’d be surprised to find who are willing to roll up their sleeves. Chaney remembers when actor Ray Wise was in town. “Some students were making a class project, and they said, ‘We need a guy your age. You want to be in our film?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ He took an afternoon off to be in their homework.”
SCAD continues to evolve its technological offerings, curriculum, resources, facilities and student services, and the Savannah Film Festival continues to grow in tandem. Wallace’s biggest festival thrill is what the students take away from the experience year after year. “My most cherished moments remain the same: watching the faces of SCAD students alight with intrigue and pure joy during film screenings, panel discussions or master classes with a long-revered producer, actor or screenwriter. For an educator, there is no more rewarding gift,” she says.
Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman was getting a tour of the campus and stumbled on a student doing an editing assignment with a piece of his film Amadeus. He sat down next to the student and began asking her questions about the choices she was making. Who was this guy interrupting her, she wondered. She had no idea until at the conclusion of their discussion Forman added, “You know, maybe I should have done it that way myself.”
SCAD’s team of reviewers spends seven months each year reviewing competition films in six categories: narrative, feature length, narrative shorts, documentaries, animation and student films. Top-notch equipment includes two SONY 4K projectors for digital productions and also 35mm projectors for those still using film.
Savannah’s visitors love the compact nature of the film festival. You can walk from one theater to another and enjoy the city’s restaurants, unique stores and historic squares even during a brief stay.
Savannah’s visitors love the compact nature of the film festival. You can walk from one theater to another and enjoy the city’s restaurants, unique stores and historic squares even during a brief stay. Trustees Theater, located at 216 East Broughton St., is a stellar festival venue born on Valentine’s Day in 1946 as the Weis Theater. It was originally a 1,200-seat space fit for cinema and stage productions. Now it serves as a multi-use performing arts facility where both technological needs and original aesthetics have been considered once more.
The Lucas Theater, located at 32 Abercorn St., was built in 1921 by Arthur Lucas who owned six theaters in Savannah. Like Trustees Theater, it showed movies and stage productions. Both of these theaters boasted air conditioning, but the Lucas holds the honor of being the first building in Savannah to offer a much-needed chill in this way. In 1986, the Lucas Theater almost became a parking garage, but a group called Lucas Theater for the Arts formed to save it. Fundraising efforts included private donations from prominent celebrities like Kevin Spacey and Clint Eastwood, and numerous cast and crew from the movie Forrest Gump.
Chris Durenberger graduated from SCAD in 2012, and he wrote and directed the short film Chalk Talk entered in last year’s festival. Durenberger’s film compares the taps of chalk on a chalkboard to Morse code, and the elegantly told story which he created garnered him a 2012 SCADemy Award for Best Undergraduate Narrative Film.
A Baltimore native, Durenberger moved to Los Angeles after graduation and found employment as a script reader. His job is to find the best scripts and recommend them to an agent.
Chalk Talk is Durenberger’s first festival film. It was accepted into five festivals, but he says the Savannah Film Festival was particularly special. He’d worked at the box office at Trustees Theater since his sophomore year at SCAD, and he’d been a volunteer at the festival as well.
“I think the greatest experience I had at the festival was just sitting in the back row watching my film at Trustees Theater,” Durenberger says, “And the plane ride back to Los Angeles was, oddly enough, a very memorable moment where I just silently sat and said to myself, ‘I’m exactly where I wanted to be at this point in my life.’”
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