IN 2014, I wrote a story called "Midnight Train to Georgia." Though primarily about the tragic accident on the set of Midnight Rider which claimed the life of Sarah Jones, the story also dealt with an apparent conflict of interest between the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) and Midnight Rider director Randall Miller's production company.
In the story it was revealed that SEDA had a previously undisclosed financial investment in Miller’s prior Savannah-shot film CBGB, and that the then-Chairman of SEDA received a producer credit on the film—activities which would seem to stretch the definition of SEDA’s core mission to market our area to outside investors and assist them.
(Miller eventually pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing in Jones's death.)
The story took place against the backdrop of the bitter acrimony between SEDA and then-Savannah Film Office Director Jay Self during the CBGB shoot.
Soon after, Self was ousted by former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, who had dramatically downscaled the Savannah Film Office. The Film Office was put under the Park and Tree Department (!), and moved away from downtown to a tiny building on the outskirts of Daffin Park.
SEDA then began to take a larger role in assisting the restructured Savannah Film Office, now called “Film Savannah.”
Last month, in a move which even surprised some on City Council, a proposal came out of City Manager Stephanie Cutter’s office which apparently will basically dissolve Film Savannah and fold it entirely under the control of SEDA.
If the proposal comes to pass, the City’s only film activity will be to issue permits. All marketing, coordination, budgeting and professional services will flow through SEDA—a group that only a few years ago had a vested financial stake in local film which could be described as eyebrow-raising at best, and a clearly unethical conflict of interest at worst.
Most disturbing, the proposal would apparently also dissolve the City Council-appointed Savannah Film Commission—which comprises mostly local people with film experience—and replace it with a SEDA-appointed advisory board.
Not only is it likely illegal to dissolve the Film Commission in this manner—the Commission is one of many citizen advisory boards established by City ordinance —the proposal is unclear as to who SEDA might appoint, what that process will look like, and how transparent it might be.
Given the track record, citizens should be concerned, especially since Georgia’s film industry is one of the few inarguable economic bright spots since the recession.
The fears of local film industry professionals and members of the Savannah Film Commission were exacerbated by the hasty, almost crafty manner in which the proposal advanced on the agenda.
At the last City Council meeting May 26, Alderman Van Johnson had to directly ask the City Manager if the Savannah Film Commission had been told they are about to be history.
A special meeting between the City, SEDA, and the Film Commission was held this past Friday under the assumption, stated at the prior Council meeting, that the proposal will come up for discussion and/or vote at the June 23 Council meeting.
Literally during the Friday meeting, the Film Commission found out that the proposal is instead scheduled to come before Council this week, June 9.
Needless to say, local film and video professionals are abuzz about the developments, and some are deeply concerned.
“Even though people knew the process has been happening for a few years now, some are upset that this memo sort of came out of nowhere,” says David Harland Rousseau, a local film veteran and member of the film professional group Savannah Filmmakers.
“There was no real discussion. No one said, ‘Hey, in six months we’ll start the transition.’ There was no discovery process, no open meetings.”
Rousseau is quick to point out that in his opinion, SEDA’s recent involvement with the local film office and the film industry has been very positive.
“To their credit, SEDA has been doing an excellent job living up to their end of the bargain with Film Savannah,” he tells me.
“They’ve done a good job of marketing and providing material resources to the film office. We have a wonderful working relationship. “
Rousseau and other film professionals tell me their concern isn’t necessarily with SEDA itself, nor even with the idea of another entity taking over from the City.
“It’s about concerns over proper oversight, public accountability, transparency, and the avoidance of any conflict of interest,” Rousseau says. “If they’re trying to get public buy-in on this important issue, they’re not doing the best job of it.”
As we go to press, the issue is scheduled for this Thursday’s City Council meeting, June 9. Stay involved, and stay tuned for more developments as they come.