Film Fest Fever


During the last week of October, right in the middle of Savannah’s sumptuous Indian Summer, residents of the Hostess City are all flushed with Film Fest Fever. From coast to coast, an onslaught of welterweight film festivals have begun popping up in recent years, sometimes in seemingly unlikely locales. Even Dahlonega, a tiny gold-panning hamlet in the heart of Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, is in on the action, boasting an “International” Film Festival each September. In this competitive arena, in which festivals are vying for the entertainment industry equivalent of a gold belt and a championship title, the Savannah Film Festival is a real knockout, and continues to gain momentum every year.

“The Savannah Film Festival,” Roger Ebert astutely notes, “benefits from being in a city a lot of people have always wanted to visit.” As such, ours has become a destination festival, and serves as a conduit to expose the film industry to our readymade backlot of cobblestone streets, Spanish Moss- draped squares and Southern Gothic appeal. Savannah’s finely-tuned tourism machine kicks into high gear, and gives ’em the old razzle dazzle. “There have been people who have been exposed to Savannah through the Film Fest that have subsequently been interested in Savannah as a location for their projects,” says Savannah Film Commissioner and Reel Savannah Film Group Program Advisor Jay Self. “It has generated a lot of very good leads.”

The SFF is the brainchild of Savannah College of Art and Design President Paula Wallace. In August 1998, Wallace approached SCAD’s Trustees Theater staff, which included current SFF Managing Director Len Cripe and Executive Director Danny Filson, to begin planning the festival that would, incredibly, debut the following month. After an awkward infancy and a case of the ‘Terrible Twos’ that involved splicing disasters and projector malfunction, the Festival has matured into an internationally known and respected event that attracts an increasingly impressive roster of films and talent; in just nine years, ticket sales have surged from a couple hundred in 1998 to approximately 35,000 in 2005.

Thanks to a small, trusted core of staffers that includes Cripe, Filson and Director of Operations Christina Routhier, as well as a hefty handful of student volunteers from nearly all of SCAD’s myriad departments, most of the Festival’s kinks have been rubbed out, and the event has reached a level of comfort and establishment that allows its ambitious staff to focus on nurturing the event into a top-echelon festival. This goal has proven to be a year-round endeavor for staffers like Cripe, who is involved in the submissions, preliminary screenings, selections, marketing, programming and scheduling of the Festival. “It’s constant,” he explains, from his office at the Trustees Theater. “We start getting film [submissions] in November, and just try to keep up throughout the year. We had close to 600 films submitted this year.” Of those, only about 10 percent—around 50-60 films, are screened for competition during the Festival. The films are a spirited goulash of student nd professional entries, all of which ultimately compete in Student, Feature, Documentary, Short, Animation, and Jury Award categories. Prizes include film stock, editing software and cash, among others; partners and sponsors such as Kodak, Adobe and HBO Films are some of the suppliers.

The eight-day festival kicks off with a star-studded fiesta of formalwear and champagne toasts that nests comfortably at the apex of Savannah’s social calendar. The Broughton Street thoroughfare that fronts Trustees Theater is barricaded and Festival VIPs mingle behind the confines of velvet ropes, smack dab in the middle of the street. Cameras flash, all sorts of cheeks are kissed, and eventually, the Trustees fills with filmmakers, stars, and press from around the country.

The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in press and repute for the festival. Prominent reviewers such as the Chicago Reader’s Jonathon Rosenbaum, as well as reps from publications including Variety and Hollywood Insider, have been dispatched to report on Festival happenings. This national coverage is no accident. Trustees staff, with the assistance of publicist Bobby Zarem and producer Stratton Leopold—both SFF advisory board members— travel to about a half a dozen major U.S. film festivals each year. “We go out and meet filmmakers and let them know about our festival. You have to keep the name out there,” says Cripe. “You might not reach that one director you want at the first festival, but you try to get them at the next one. It’s a circuit, and you try to work your way through it.”

Distinguishing the Savannah Film Festival as a citywide, rather than campus- wide festival is an important part of keeping it a viable stop on the annual film festival circuit for professional filmmakers. “This is the Savannah Film Festival. We understand the importance of that to the Savannah community and to the broader industry. Savannah has allure,” Cripe explains.

That may well be, but one thing is for sure: You can take the “SCAD” out of the title, but you can’t keep the SCAD out of the festival. Growth of the Savannah Film Festival has mirrored that of the college, and Festival organizers strive to strike a balance to suit both the student body, and the industry bigwigs. “We have just enough for the filmmaker so that it really is a professional film festival, and just has that college component to it,” says Cripe. “It sounds a little sappy, but one of the greatest things for [professionals] is when they feel like they’re giving back. A lot of times these directors, producers and financial people will be going to these festivals simply to speak to their peers. They don’t ever get to talk to that next generation as closely as they have been able to here. That has really been a big selling point for our film festival each year.” Intimate panels, workshops and question and answer sessions in which industry giants like Walter Murch, Peter O’Toole and Arthur Penn deconstruct their artistic processes and offer insights into their trade, are hallmark features of the Festival.

But the main attractions for the majority of Festival attendees are the evening screenings. These events are less industry jargon and more glamour, and attendees catch glimpses of future classics and award winners. Furthermore, all evening screenings are capped with dazzling receptions that often extend into wee hours, because sometimes the glitterati needs to get its party on, too—Dirty South style. It’s a rare occasion that one gets to share cocktails with Alec Baldwin and George Segal at The Bar Bar or discuss Citizen Kane with Roger Ebert at Venus de Milo. After all, a film festival is only as good as its parties.

The ever-increasing muscle of the Savannah Film Festival is evidenced in the high caliber of films it continues to attract; a countless number of films in the Festival’s pantheon have gone on to be nominated for or win major awards like Oscars and Golden Globes. In 2004, critical darling Sideways opened the Festival and went on to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical. Similarly, the 2003 French Canadian film The Barbarian Invasions, which racked up at the Cannes Film Festival, went on to win the Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Foreign Film after being screened at that year’s Festival. In 2005, Woody Allen’s Match Point had its North American premiere at the Savannah Film Festival.

Jay Self is enthusiastic about the cultural impact this internationally flavored roster of films has on the city: “What’s great about the Savannah Film Festival is that it brings the opportunity for people in this area to see films and hear ideas they wouldn’t otherwise see and hear in the bland multiplex world most people are subjected to.”

Because rarely do such films reach these cinematic badlands. Despite the success of small local film series like Reel Savannah, Savannah has yet to show it is interested enough in independent, foreign or less-traditional films to sustain an arthouse cinema, or even buy enough tickets at aforementioned multiplexes to keep distributors and theater owners happy. Nevertheless, tickets to many of the screenings and special events are gobbled up with such fervor, one might assume Savannahians had been shielded from daring, exciting filmmaking against our will for all these years. It could be argued that the Film Festival experience is like typical movie-going on mescaline, hyped up on a shot of the glamour, relevance and energy it has been sorely lacking since the decline of the movie palace era. Watch a film in the Trustees, and you might as well be sitting in Radio City Music Hall during its heyday; suddenly, the chain movie theater feels like Super Wal-Mart and the gorgeous, Vaudevillian Lucas feels like Barneys on Madison Avenue.

Throughout the year, organizers toil to ensure each Festival is an improvement over the last. New events, for example an upcoming sidebar on a new trend in independent filmmaking called “Machinima”, in which filmmakers modify preexisting video game technology to produce self- contained films that occur within a virtual reality, 3-D environment, are designed to explore every facet of the industry and appeal to SCAD’s various departments. “I have seen a huge increase in the quality of the films and the professionalism in presenting the Festival,” gushes Stratton Leopold. “It’s a great group that runs it.”

While the Savannah Film Festival has yet to land itself a heavyweight title, it certainly holds its ground against the competition. “There are two types of film festivals,” explains Jay Self. “With some, everybody just gets together and watches and appreciates films. The other film festivals have become marketplaces, where independent films are shown, and distributors go to buy these films to distribute. Festivals like Toronto, Sundance, Cannes, Berlin— that’s what a film festival wants to grow up to be, and I think someday the Savannah Film Festival could grow up to be that.”

Ever since tabloids and the E! Network began taunting us with sun- drenched images of glitzy Americans cavorting in Cannes, vogueing in Venice, Hollywood’s most familiar mugs wrapped in fashion scarves, smiling carelessly as they careened down snowy mountainsides in Park City, Utah, between Sundance screenings, we’ve all wondered, wistfully, what that dazzlingly distant film festival experience would be like. This irreplaceable experience, in a nutshell, is the everlasting appeal of the film festival, one that few people are lucky enough to enjoy, and the Savannah Film Festival consistently delivers in spades.