Ready for your close-up, Savannah? 

When it comes to making movies, I’m firmly committed to suspending my disbelief.

As far as I’m concerned, the film business is a world of glamor and sorcery located somewhere in a galaxy far, far away, where celestial beings create entertainment for us mere mortals.

I don’t even want to know what’s actually in popcorn butter, let alone what goes on behind the scenes. And there’s no worse spoiler than bumping into your favorite film heartthrob and a local restaurant and finding out he is shorter than you, or is mean to dogs, or is a crappy tipper.

Close encounters of the movie star kind can also go wrong the other way: Several Savannah Film Festivals ago, legendary publicist Bobby Zarem introduced me to a major objet de crush, actor Josh Lucas, and I was delighted to find out that he was as indeed as tall and smoldering as he appeared in Sweet Home Alabama. So delighted, in fact, that I spilled sweet tea in his lap.

So you see, it’s really for the best that I stay on the spectator side of the silver screen.

But with all the Hollywood magic coming to town lately, the line between us earthly creatures and our matinee idols is becoming as blurry as a Vaseline lens. What with Adam Sandler eating scrambled eggs at Sunrise on Tybee during the production of The Do Over and Channing Tatum consulting a local chiropractor after tweaking his back while twerking in Magic Mike XL, it seems like there are more blockbuster faces than ever on Savannah’s streets.

How ‘bout Robert-freakin-DeNiro shopping City Market like a regular tourist while on a break from filming Dirty Grandpa this summer? And Captain America Chris Evans getting literary at the Bull Street Library for Gifted?

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I’d better get used to being reluctantly starstruck, ‘cause it’s only getting more glittery around here.

Our rising fame has been a real cliffhanger, actually: Sleepy Savannah has long provided charming backdrops for hundreds of films over the decades, from Forrest Gump’s bench to SpongeBob’s Salty Shoals. But contracts dropped dramatically in 2014 after shake-ups in the City’s Film Office and the death of second camera assistant Sarah Jones on the set of Midnight Rider.

The tragedy, which revolutionized safety standards industry-wide, also contributed to the closure of Meddin Studios, Savannah’s only full-service soundstage and production facility at the time. (The Savannah Film Factory has since transformed the old CitiTrends building on Fahm Street into a movie-making wonderland.)

But overcoming adversity is part of any riveting epic, and the Hostess City has emerged triumphant last year as a veritable Show Biz capital of the South.

“We had a major production filming here every month in 2015,” confirms Will Hammargren of the Savannah Film Office, adding that three of the 16 finalists in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival were filmed in Savannah—Christine, The Intervention and Birth of a Nation.

“Georgia has essentially become the go-to location in the Southeast, and Atlanta sees a lot of production. But Savannah has infrastructure and a beach, so that drives a lot of work our way.”

Money also plays a starring role: As North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana have dialed back their incentives for film production, Georgia’s remain some of the highest in the country, offering up to a 30 percent tax credit with no spending cap. And beginning Jan. 1, 2016, the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) has sweetened the deal, adding extra rebates and a relocation reimbursement for qualified crew professionals through the Savannah Entertainment Production Incentive program.

The $1.5 million yearly investment will win us an even larger slice Georgia’s $6 billion film revenue pie, feeding what SEDA CEO Trip Tollison calls “the sixth pillar of Savannah’s economy.”

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“We may not surpass Atlanta in terms of the number of productions, but Savannah is in a solid second place with its film industry,” Tollison told a packed room last week at the annual SEDA annual meeting.

While the tax rebates may please the bean counters, amassing a qualified local work force is the main attraction for those multi-million dollar projects, says Hammargren. At the moment, there may not be enough experienced crew members in the film office’s local directory should two major films decide to descend on Savannah at once.

But rather than creating cutthroat competition in a small market, luring trained electrical, lighting and other trained crew from Los Angeles and other big cities actually expands opportunities for the SCAD grads and professional film folk who have been here all along.

Lowcountry born-and-bred crew member and actor Matthew Krueger has pieced together a decent living in film here since the days of The Legend of Bagger Vance and welcomes the new blood.

“It’s always been a lot of hustle and flow,” laughs Krueger, who has logged credits as a production assistant in CBGB, a transportation coordinator and most recently, a construction clerk on the Brunswick-based Ben Affleck Prohibition-era mob flick Live By Night, due out in 2017.

“Relocating more crew here means bigger and better productions will come, which translates into more work for everyone.”

It also means that I am probably not going to be able keep up my willful delusions for much longer. With a slew of major films already in pre-production for 2016 around Savannah and Tybee, I’m going to have to accept that movies are not made by gods and monsters on another planet, but by hard-working people in my own backyard.

If it’s for the local economic greater good, I suppose I can handle having Sam Rockwell and Whoopi Goldberg in town for The Unknowns. And there’s really no point in complaining if I have to see Zac Efron’s abs in person on the set of Baywatch.

But if I run into The Rock buying hummus at Parker’s and find out he’s only five feet tall, I’m gonna freak.


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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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