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Thoughts on an evolving SCAD Savannah Film Festival

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Michael Shannon in 'Knives Out'
  • Michael Shannon in 'Knives Out'

THIS YEAR'S SCAD Savannah Film Festival (which wrapped on Nov. 2) was, in many respects, exactly the same as in virtually every year since its inception.

By that I mean that attendees were treated to just what this annual showcase and competition of both professional and student filmmaking has come to be known for over its 22 years of existence: dozens of noteworthy feature-length narrative motion pictures and documentaries (most of which have already acquitted themselves favorably at established and respected festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, Toronto and SXSW), scores more short subjects in a variety of genres (including many standout student shorts from across the globe), and rarely-afforded sneak previews of buzzworthy features scheduled to hit U.S. theaters in the days, weeks or –in some cases– months after their Savannah screenings.

Add into that mix a few handfuls of live appearances by actors, filmmakers and technical artists from the movie and TV industries who are at worst recognizable to many and at best household names worldwide, and you have a recipe for great success.

For those of us who thrive on the (unfortunately) rare opportunity to see eclectic examples of top-notch cinema projected professionally with optimal visual and aural quality in the beautiful, vintage balconied movie palaces that are downtown’s Lucas and Trustees theaters, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival is a dream come true.

Even the smaller screenings, held at the intimate auditorium in the SCAD Museum of Art are presented at an exceedingly high technical level, and with great care.

The ability to observe –and occasionally interact with– the festival’s visiting guests and honorees during post-screening question-and-answer sessions, panel discussions and, every once in a great while, chance meetings on the street or in a bar or restaurant, is a treat not afforded to most in similarly sized cities around the country.

In other words, it’s something that’s truly quite remarkable which, over the past two decades has unfortunately become something which many in and around Savannah take remarkably for granted.

For proof of this blithely jaded attitude toward the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, look no further than the locals and visitors –many of whom regularly attend the festival to some degree each year– who seem to relish with delight the act of loudly kvetching about the quality of the festival, specifically in relation to past installments.

To hear many of them tell it, the festival has lost its shine and is coasting on past glories.

They’d have you believe this based on any number of rather subjective metrics, most of which always seem to boil down to some variation of “I don’t care about any of the stars on hand this year,” or “There are no big names attending the festival anymore,” or “Why didn’t they show ‘insert title of ridiculously hyped upcoming major motion picture that’s bound to play in Savannah eventually anyway’?”, to “It’s just a bunch of junk I’ve never heard of…”

Now, first of all, film festivals are living, breathing entities all their own. They grow and morph and change (and occasionally devolve or dwell overtly on nostalgia), but, basically speaking, they are in a constant state of flux. And the SSFF is certainly no exception to this rule.

In the early years of the festival, back when it was simply known as the Savannah Film Festival (brought to you by SCAD), the entire affair seemed rather preoccupied with nabbing the biggest name stars they could possibly attract. This goal was often accomplished by way of handing out Lifetime Achievement Awards – which, by their very nature require if not an entire lifetime, then certainly several decades’ worth of work to earn.

It was also abetted by the copious assistance of famed “Superflack” Bobby Zarem, a bona fide legend of old-school publicity campaigns who was born in Savannah but came to prominence in NYC celebrity scene of the 1970s.

Zarem’s fabled Rolodex and longstanding personal relationships with an enviable who’s who of celebrities and their agents initially gave the SFF access to throngs of veteran actors, directors and personalities, many of which graced the stages of the Lucas and Trustees theaters, where they accepted accolades and awards and presented sneak previews of their latest feature (or attended celebratory revival screenings of standout pictures from their oeuvre).

However, the vast majority of Zarem’s connections in the entertainment world were rooted in stars who initially made names for themselves in the 1960s through the early 1990s. That worked wonderfully for attracting figures like Liam Neeson, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Stone, Buck Henry, Michael Douglas, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, Lily Tomlin, Dick Cavett and George Segal – all of whom were immediately recognizable to the older locals who purchased tickets and prestige passes to the festival, but in all honesty often meant next to nothing to younger attendees and, perhaps most importantly, the school’s students who make up a substantial portion of the crowd at each and every screening.

Zarem’s high-profile association with the festival ended in 2014 with an awkward and public display of acrimony that left many friends and supporters of the iconic PR man openly musing that without his priceless personal connections and imprimatur the SFF would surely falter, unable to procure big name guests and book desirable “gets” from the studios.

However, those reports of the demise of the festival were unfounded, as SCAD instantly engaged another high level industry PR and marketing firm and continued to nab advance screenings of extremely buzzworthy features as well as reliably solid slates of recognizable actors and filmmakers more than willing to swing by our beautiful city for the opportunity to hold a masterclass with advanced students from the school’s Film, TV, Sound Design or Dramatic Arts departments (and to pick up a fancy statue and a career boost at the same time).

True, there was a bit of a noticeable shift toward celebrating younger talents (as opposed to industry elders) in such awards ceremonies, but while some of those choices may indeed have been the result of a certain strata of older, more established stars opting to decline SCAD’s invitation in deference to their longstanding relationship with Zarem, the reality was that folks from their peer group were simply aging out of such things.

And, perhaps more importantly, the school was slowly, steadily –and, somewhat stealthily, it would seem– reorienting slightly the nature of the festival itself.

In a move many saw as foolhardy and shortsighted, they recently rebranded the festival to place the college front and center by placing its name “above the title.” It’s now known as the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, which many understandably feel makes the entire endeavor sound, well, smaller and less impressive than it actually is.

Yet, despite the inarguable legitimacy of such criticism, it’s worth noting that through that rebranding the school is now able to boast that the SCAD Savannah Film Festival is (reportedly) the largest university-sponsored film festival in the world.

And they’re leaning hard on that distinction.

Five years on from Zarem’s departure, that changing of the guards has helped the SCAD Savannah Film Festival to begin to redefine itself not so much by what it is attempting to be, but what it’s not attempting to be.

The 2019 installment only offered one Lifetime Achievement Award (to Grammy winning and Oscar nominated film composer Alan Silvestri). The other honorees this year consisted of “Rising Stars” and “Discoveries” inherently notable for the size of the waves they have made in their industry during the relatively short time they have been in the public eye. In fact, after Silvestri, the honoree with the next longest career was actor-producer-director Olivia Wilde, whose first screen credits came in 2003.

To most current SCAD undergraduates, who were born around 2000, Wilde might as well be an industry veteran.

By focusing more on legitimately talented yet also young and hip figures such as Daniel Kaluuya (the star of Jordan Peele’s sensational 2017 horror film-cum-racial allegory “Get Out” and a supporting actor in 2018’s transgressive Marvel superhero smash “Black Panther”), the current direction of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival appeals as much if not more to the young people who essentially pay for it each year through their tuition fees than the older members of Savannah society who routinely purchase comprehensive festival passes.

The SCAD Savannah Film Festival's renewed emphasis on promoting the school in more tangible ways could also be felt this year in the expanded participation of students from SCAD’s School of Entertainment Arts, who seemed to play a greater role than previously in introducing the festival’s guests and honorees.

As might be expected, changes of this sort to what has become a beloved, and highly-anticipated public event in the city simply cannot be made without ruffling a few feathers. (After all, in Savannah, complaining is an art form unto itself.)

Over the course of this year’s festival, I heard more than a few disgruntled attendees grousing about what they perceived to be disappointing aspects of the event.

Chief among these were: A) what some perceived to be a lackluster lineup of feature films, B) what some perceived to be a serious deficit of “star power” compared with previous festivals, C) the fact that narrative and documentary features competing for festival awards were only screened once each this year, as opposed to twice each, as in years past and D) the bemoaning by local VIP passholders of the lack of private catered, open-bar afterparties which have traditionally occurred immediately following each night’s 7 p.m. presentations.

As far as the quality of this year’s lineup goes: I have often found that a healthy portion of locals who regularly attend the SCAD Savannah Film Festival see it essentially as a can’t miss social event on their annual calendar, as opposed to an international showcase of noteworthy features and shorts (which it is).

Sure, these attendees “like movies,” but do they really study or dwell on them as an art form?

The expectations of such less-than-adventurous or cinematically undereducated viewers (who, it must be said, are sometimes actually offended by the depiction of perspectives or viewpoints which do not align with their own) can generally be counted on not to align with the ethos which goes into carefully programming an artistically challenging festival such as this.

From my standpoint, as someone who has devoted an inordinate amount of time to dissecting and attempting to appreciate the most disparate types of filmmaking, this year’s lineup was quite solid.

Some of the standout features I was lucky enough to catch sneak previews of included: writer-director-producer Rian Johnson’s loving, clever-clever ode to hokey, 1970s and 1980s “whodunnit” murder mysteries, “Knives Out,” which found Daniel Craig expanding on his unexpected knack for broad, shticky comedy that he so ably displayed in 2017’s “Logan Lucky,” and which boasted absolutely luscious production design and cinematography; Chinonye Chukwu’s white-knuckle intense death row drama “Clemency,” featuring a sublimely stellar performance by Alfre Woodard (who also served as executive producer) which served to demonstrate the horrendous psychological toll which overseeing legalized executions can –and should– take on prison wardens; “The Lodge,” a tremendously chilling British-made horror feature from Austrian co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (the team responsible for 2014’s stupendously fantastic psychological thriller “Goodnight Mommy”) which deserves a shot at wide release and great fanfare; and first-time feature director Brian C. Miller Richard’s mesmerizing low-budget, Louisiana-set character study “Lost Bayou,” featuring a knockout turn from underrated character actor Dane Rhodes as a severely traumatized Cajun folk-healer seemingly incapable of reconciling with his estranged, drug-addicted daughter.

I also caught a rare U.S. screening of the latest “auto-fictional” feature which pairs Spain’s master writer-director Pedro Almodóvar with his longtime collaborator, actor Antonio Banderas.

“Pain and Glory” is easily my favorite of all the Almodóvar films I have seen, and this extraordinarily bittersweet tale of an hermetic, pain-ravaged Spanish filmmaker who finds himself drawn into a spiral of self-destructive behavior on the eve of the unexpected critical reappraisal of one of his earliest directorial efforts spoke to me like no movie I’ve seen in ages.

Banderas (whom I’ve never been all that impressed with, to be perfectly honest) gives an unbelievably nuanced and naturalistic performance, essaying a character clearly inspired by Almodóvar himself (Pedro’s own apartment in Madrid actually served as the set for Banderas’ character’s home in the film), and the picture ends with what I can only view as a wondrous and touching homage to the great Chilean writer, filmmaker and spiritual guru Alejandro Jodorowsky.

So, yeah. There were plenty of spectacular films on tap at this year’s SSFF, despite what some naysayers may have you believe.

As far as the notion that there seemed to be noticeably fewer “big stars” attending this year’s festival, I have two words for you: Heartbeat Bill.

It’s disgusting, folks. And its impact in the entertainment industry is real, and it’s ongoing.

There are so many more high-profile actors, directors, producers, screenwriters and technical engineers in the film and TV business who have zero interest in being photographed hanging out in Georgia these days, for any reason.

Anyone who thinks such a misguided law doesn’t contribute to a distaste for our state is fooling themselves, and while I don’t have any actual confirmation that ugly situation played a role in limiting the number of potential honorees the SCAD Savannah Film Festival had to choose from, I’d bet my original Facets label DVD of “Salo” that this year’s guest list came down to what my Grandma Rubydawn used to call “doin’ the best you can with what you’ve got left.”

As far as only screening the competition films once each instead of twice, yes that makes it a little hard to catch them all, if that’s what you’re trying to do. However, it also frees up valuable slots for additional films. A greater number of films in the festival is always an improvement.

That leaves us with this year’s lack of afterparties. In lieu of an open bar soiree held every night at a different local restaurant, watering hole or gallery, the school opted for an opening night party and a closing night party – both of which I’m told were dry affairs, with no alcohol available.

For some this was a big letdown, but from where I sit, it makes perfect sense.

First off, the only people who were allowed into those events were special guests of the festival and VIP Passholders. Now, that made access to such an amenity a cool bragging right, but in all honesty, the parties were always fairly boring affairs which consistently promised the chance to see or mingle with the visiting stars, but always found the school (for whatever reason) hiding said stars away behind velvet ropes where no one save for a precious few school employees or other honored guests were allowed to tread.

It was as if these stars were on display behind some sort of force field or under glass. They often looked uncomfortable, and I don’t blame them.

Secondly, because this has always been an event geared at least somewhat towards students (and, as I discussed in detail earlier, now even more so), a good chunk of the folks with passes allowing them into these parties weren’t even legally allowed to drink, which made the open bar thing moderately problematic if not simply superfluous.

Sure, there are older, monied types here in town that got a kick out of eating finger food and drinking for an hour or so on SCAD’s dime, but that’s a self-congratulatory exercise.

If the money saved from such afterparties –which, by the way, always had the unfortunate consequence of leeching off a huge number of people from attending the 9:30 p.m. films– can find its way towards bringing in a larger number of honorees or otherwise enhancing the overall experience of attending the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, all the better.

In the end, the 2019 SCAD Savannah Film Festival was another fine example of an international showcase of outstanding cinema that this city is incredibly lucky to enjoy.

The fact that it falls so late in each year’s film festival circuit means that –generally speaking– we tend to get the pick of the litter when it comes to movies which have already proven their mettle at bigger and more distinguished fests like TIFF and Cannes.

So, the Gala Screenings at the SSFF are often remarkably reliable predictors of which movies will at least be nominated for Oscars, Independent Spirit Awards or Golden Globes.

Individual tickets are very reasonably priced, and while the evening shows usually sell out in a flash, one can often snag a ticket to most any daytime screening right up until a couple of days before, if not immediately prior to the show itself.

Could it be improved in some regards? Of course, but all things of this sort can.

Overall, it remains one of the most laudable and dazzling cultural undertakings this city can ever hope to host. May it continue to grow and evolve.

Now, if they’d just bring back the Director’s Choice Mystery Film…

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