It’s been around for less than a decade and although it’s still a child, the Savannah Film Festival has already begun to play with the big kids. It certainly holds its own with more famous festival locales like Sundance and Aspen.
Savannah has the advantage of maintaining much of what those used to be -- eclectic and intimate, in an unbeatable setting -- something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the industry.
Early Savannah Film Festival guest James Ivory, of Merchant-Ivory Films, is one of the oldest friends of the festival. His impression of Savannah, and most importantly the festival’s connection to SCAD, was something that prompted him to remark to Film Festival Managing Director Len Cripe, “I just have to say, this has been a time out of time experience. This town, and this festival, is so open and giving. So many places give you the velvet rope treatment, and everyone else is on the other side.”
Cripe says this is something they try to continue. “We do our best to include the students, the faculty, and the community. It’s what makes this festival different.”
Getting first-run, feature films previewed for the Festival’s special screenings is no easy task. Cripe goes to some of the high profile festivals like Toronto and Sundance. SCAD also has a board of advisors of industry professionals with connections to help the festival get advance prints and even the stars that are in them.
One of those advisors is Stratton Leopold. When he’s not making ice cream from 100-year-old family recipes, he’s producing the most expensive film made by Paramount Pictures to date. Leopold is the proprietor of Leopold’s Ice Cream in addition to his position at Paramount. His most recent accomplishment was as executive producer of Mission Impossible 3.
And yet, Savannah is where he grew up, and where he returned.
“It has such a wonderful sense of history and a loyal sense of friendship, something not always prevalent in other larger cities,” Leopold says.
Leopold’s career took him all over the world but he still missed having a home in Savannah.
“Downtown Savannah is unique in the world. We’re fortunate to have two wonderfully restored theatres close to each other. The Savannah Film Festival provides a wonderful opportunity for a very influential film industry professionals to see our amazing city and to participate in a world class festival.”
In addition to building upon its success of past years, the Savannah Film Festival has another key ingredient: Savannah. Filmmakers, actors and gurus delight in wandering between two historic film venues in 72-degree weather.
Cripe, who visits other festivals throughout the year, says it isn’t fair to compare with other cities of similar size because there is just no place like Savannah.
“In bigger cities, often times there is no intimacy between the city and the festival,” Cripe says. “Exactly the opposite is true here. Everyone knows where the films will be, where the lectures are, even where everyone is staying.”
The buzz is certainly palpable. If you’re “in”, you wouldn’t think of going anywhere without your laminated pass dangling from your neck.
One place you won’t get in without a pass is the The Marshall House. The distinct hotel on Broughton Street served as a Union hospital in the Civil War, and more recently the hotel for the cast and crew of Forrest Gump.
Perennially, The Marshall House acts as home base for the Film Festival guests. Most of the filmmakers, stars and staff stay in the 1851 building and many more dine there. Don’t be surprised to find Peter O’Toole at the omelet station or Norman Jewison chatting with a student.
Sometimes living in a smaller city can be frustrating place for those who want more than the blockbuster, wide-release films. Savannah has answered. In addition to the week of the festival, there are smaller groups getting independent films on the big screen.
Roger Rawlings, chair of SCAD’s new Cinema Studies department, is excited to team up with the Trustees and Lucas theatres to create a year-round presence in the form of Savannah Film Society.
“We’d like to bring certain esoteric and independent first run films that open in New York and LA every Friday,” he says. “We don’t have a MoMa in town to bring culturally relevant films here, that we’re reading about in class, that allows us to tap into what is actually happening in our culture. SCAD has made Savannah an art town and this is one way we can strengthen that even more.”
This goes for locals as well. Ken and Jackie Sirlin, film enthusiasts and downtown dwellers, have attended the festival since they moved to Savannah six years ago.
“I think the first year we only saw one movie,” recalls Ken, but after that, they were hooked.
The Sirlins now purchase passes so they can attend all the movies and the post-screening events.
“As townies, we reap the benefits of what the college creates,” says Jackie. “We attend the workshops and lectures, which are mostly for the school and students, but we get to enjoy it.”
The Sirlins lived in Europe and in Canada and witnessed the birth of the Toronto and Barcelona Film Festivals, in addition to residing in places like Brussels that have overwhelming film scenes.
“We have lived in interesting places and they had all kinds of film so it’s nice when it happens here,” Ken says. “For people like us, who enjoy film, the variety we get to see in one week is incredible.”
Jackie, who runs a yoga class out of their carriage house, cancels classes and lets her tennis teams know she won’t be available for any matches that week.
“I especially like seeing the documentaries and shorts. You used to go to the wide release movies and a short would play before the feature but you don’t get to see those anymore.”
The Sirlins have also witnessed the ease of film stars once they breathe a bit of Savannah air. Ken remembers when Matthew Modine was in town:
“The after-party was at Belford’s and it was mobbed. Everything was taking forever. So Matthew Modine jumped behind the bar and started helping out. You just never know about people. Some of them have an entourage and some of them are very open.”
“It’s a very relaxed atmosphere for a lot of them, I think,” Jackie says. “I always see George Segal and his wife walking hand in hand, wandering around town, just like anybody.”
Ken and Jackie have watched the film festival become more in demand.
“There never used to be a problem walking up a few minutes before the show and getting a ticket. Now the evening screenings are sold out, and there is a line of people waiting for chance to get in. It’s great.”
Stratton Leopold compares the relaxed atmosphere of Savannah with the patrons of his ice cream establishment.
“People are predisposed to be in a good mood when they come in the store,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen, God forbid, is a lengthy power outage. I’m reminded of the ‘old days’ when hurricanes would threaten Savannah and knowing the power would be out for several days, my dad and his brothers would invite the neighborhood for free ice cream. Better to have people enjoy it that to have it melt.”
One can do no wrong with free ice cream. And with Savannah at its back, it seems the Film Festival can’t either.
Tickets and Festival passes can be purchased by calling 525-5050, online at
www.scadboxoffice.com or in person at 216 E. Broughton St.
Daytime screenings - 10am, 12:30pm, 3pm screenings and panels only - $5 for the general public, $3 for seniors and students, free with a valid SCAD ID.
Evening premieres - $5 for the general public, $3 for seniors, students or valid SCAD ID.
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