The Savannah Film Festival: ways to make it even better

One night at the just-completed Savannah Film Festival, Savannah College of Art and Design president and co-founder Paula Wallace took time to honor five key SCAD employees for their ongoing work: festival executive director Danny Filson, managing director Len Cripe, director of operations Christina Routhier, and film professors Michael Chaney and Chris Auer.

I’d like to add my personal thanks, congratulations, and appreciation to those five festival insiders, plus many others, including but not limited to the legendary publicist Bobby Zarem, Zarem’s longtime associate (and one of the most talented people I know) Bill Augustin, programming director Sheila Bolda, the folks in SCAD’s media relations department, and advisory board members like Gil Donaldson, Myra Scheer, and Michael James, not to mention Paula Wallace herself.

As I emphasized at the end of my City Talk column today, it’s remarkable that the SCAD-sponsored Savannah Film Festival has reached such a level of prestige and quality in just 15 years.

But the festival could be better, and that’s what this post is about. I don’t mean to take anything away from the event’s amazing accomplishments or to insult anyone (although I suppose my comments could be viewed that way by some).

I’ve made pretty much all of the below suggestions directly to festival insiders or have mentioned them publicly in Savannah Morning News columns — in some cases for years. So there’s nothing new here.

But a bit of additional public discussion about how to improve and grow the Savannah Film Festival can’t be a bad thing. Maybe others will be prompted to make suggestions that are better than anything I have to say.

First off, I see no reason to change the festival’s key elements: the hospitality to visiting filmmakers, the honoring of high-profile special guests, the mix of educational initiatives and sessions geared primarily for students, the mix of special screenings and competition films, and so forth.

But let me make the following suggestions:

1. Use both the Lucas Theatre and Trustees Theater for evening screenings.

I have been raising this issue for years and brought it up in a recent column. In the festival’s early years, it was by no means certain that the 1200-ish seats in Trustees Theater would fill up for the special evening screenings and the honoring of special guests. But those days are gone. Those evening shows sell out quickly, with the crowds dominated by pass holders who severely restrict the access of purchasers of individual tickets. That effectively shuts many Savannahians — including SCAD students — out of the festival. Their schedules don’t allow for the daytime screenings and they can’t get seats for the evening ones. So they don’t go to the festival at all.

Sure, running films at the Lucas at night would require more staffing, and someone will have to do the work. But the additional ticket sales would easily cover the cost. While the special screenings of yet-to-be-released films and high-profile award presentations could remain at Trustees, the evening programs at the Lucas could consist of additional screenings of competition features and shorts, as well as various other films of interest (like the 1931 Dracula that showed at the Lucas on Halloween night).

It’s a simple way to expand the festival’s audience, and I’m a little puzzled that it’s not already being done.

In expanding the reach, the festival would also find itself with more attendance from marginal audiences — local teenagers, students who aren’t film majors, members of minority communities who currently aren’t tuned into the festival at all, etc.

2. Make the parties better.

I know, I know. I’m lucky to have a media pass that allows me to go to the evening receptions, so why should I complain?

But the parties aren’t as much fun as they used to be. (I skipped three of them this year, and left three others very early.)

This year’s receptions were at some promising venues: SCAD Museum of Art, The Olde Pink House, Cha Bella, Savannah Smiles, Moon River Brewing Company, Belford’s, SCAD’s Gutstein Gallery, and the college’s original building: Poetter Hall. The five private hosts for those parties were all listed among the festival’s sponsors, so a certain amount of the costs was presumably in trade.

Many of the receptions in recent years have shared common and entirely predictable problems, including long lines at the bar(s). Just have some glasses of wine waiting and have some cold beer on ice for self-service as guests arrive en masse, then those lines for specialty drinks will be both smaller and faster.

The food has been pretty meager too, which is a problem if you’ve lined up for a movie by 6:30 and are looking for something more substantial to eat after a screening. Turning over some of the party planning — or entire parties — to corporate sponsors could take care of this.

And that’s related to my next suggestion:

3. Keep the festival fresh; don’t lose the fun.

In the early years of the festival, lots of students managed to get to evening screenings and parties, but the events seem increasingly dominated by older local residents with passes (like me). That breeds a certain sameness — a common development as successful festivals mature.

But there’s an amazing and ever-changing wellspring of creativity at SCAD: the students. Why not ask one of the great bands comprised of students to play late sets at midweek parties? Why not ask clubs — like the circus club — or even academic departments to provide diversions of some sort for the public events? (SCAD’s drum line performed in Broughton Street after the final night screening of Rise of the Guardians, but I sat through the credits, stopped in the bathroom, and missed the street show entirely.)

4. And a few details.

The festival introduced an excellent idea this year: an audience choice award. But voting ended on Wednesday (I think that was the day), before some competition films even had their second screenings.

The final night awards ceremony somehow routinely ends up seeming both too long and too rushed. It just needs to be tighter, even scripted.

SCAD has done a solid job with their social media presence, but they could put up a lot more content. It’s just an 8-day festival, so there’s no real danger of overkill. Just 10 pics have been posted on Facebook from Day 7, for example, and none so far (it’s late Sunday evening) from Day 8. The winning SCAD student bumper apparently hasn’t been posted there either, nor has the list of competition film winners.

Here’s the winning student bumper, by the way: