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Film roles mean big bucks for Savannah business

In movie plots, small entreprenuers often realize big dreams through hard work and timing. It’s a true story for many local businesses as the film industry discovers Savannah.

Over the last five years, the film industry’s economic impact on Savannah increased five-fold, growing from $26 million in 2012 to $130 million in 2016, providing local businesses, entrepreneurs and artists with big opportunity.

“There wasn’t much happening with the film industry in Savannah when I came back from Beverly Hills in 2012,” said Samone Norsworthy, who lived and worked as a television and film producer in Los Angeles. “Since then, the growth in Savannah has been tremendous.”

Norsworthy is one of the many locals making a living from the film industry in Savannah.

“Now, a lot of people who live in Los Angeles are moving to Georgia to work in the film industry,” Norsworthy observed.

Norsworthy created her Savannah-based production company, Wonder Worthy Productions, in order to provide resources, education and support to filmmakers.

“They’ll outsource to my production company to provide resources for films and to ensure it all comes together,” Norsworthy said. “My crew can be anywhere from 50 to 150 people and they’re all local.”

Norsworthy, who has worked on pictures such as “The Little Mermaid” and “The Divorce Party,” books hotel stays for film crews and staff, providing profit to local hotels, such as the Andaz.

“I’ll average between $80,000 to $250,000 in hotel revenue per film in Savannah,” she said.

Like Norsworthy, Kristine Kennedy, a local production designer, goes out of her way to find local talent, props and other items necessary for film production.

“If we can keep our spending local, it’s good for us and it’s good for local businesses because they make money,” Kennedy said. “The more we can source locally and the more businesses can understand what we need, the more we can work with them.”

Kennedy explained the importance and efficiency of sourcing locally.

“I’d much rather have my crew working locally, and be able to drive half an hour and pick up everything we need,” she said. “We’re trying to develop relationships here in Savannah, so we can do this all the time.”

In the past, Kennedy has worked with many Savannah businesses, including Urban Poppy for floral arrangements, local marine specialists and Catie’s Confections on Tybee Island for specialty baked goods.

“The film industry has definitely helped my business,” said Cathleen Campbell, owner of Catie’s Confections. “They pay promptly and they pay well because they need very specific things. It helps my businesses through the wintertime when we’re not as seasonally profitable on Tybee.”

Campbell explained that being a resource for the film industry requires timeliness and trustworthiness.

“There’s a lot of work involved I didn’t know was involved until I actually started working with the film folks,” she said. “They know I’ll show up on time and that I’ll bring the food they requested. There are no bakeries on Tybee, so it’s based on reputation. That’s the greatness of living in a small town.”

Her latest request for a film, which she said she’s not able to name at this time, was to make rainbow Rice Krispies squares. “I had 24 hours to figure out how to do it. Thank God for Pinterest! The desserts had to be cut into uneven squares, just how children would do it. They were very happy with my final product,” said Campbell.

Campbell, whose background is as a pastry chef, added, “It keeps me motivated to keep learning!”

Kennedy said, aside from working with local companies, she also discovers local artists and art galleries to work with her. “It’s a win-win,” Kennedy said, “because the artists get paid to have their art in the film and then the art is returned to them. We help artists become more savvy to this process so that they can continue to rent art to productions in the future.”

“Savannah is just starting to understand what it means to have a film ‘land,’ ” Kennedy continued. “I say ‘land’ because we’re like a big encampment. We have trucks, food, crew, we take up parking. … We could be seen as an inconvenience, but we can also be seen as an opportunity.”

On Tybee Island, the owner of Mermaid Cottages, Diane Kaufman, said working with the film industry has always been a great experience for her.

“Our first experience was with Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Last Song’ in 2010,” she said. “Tybee Vacation Rentals hosted the stars because their homes are more secure, and we hosted homes for Miley’s mother, Miley’s security guard and other members of her entourage.”

Kaufman also worked with the production team on donating money to the Tybee Sea Turtle Project because they filmed “The Last Song” on Tybee.

“It was a two-part win for our community,” Kaufman said. “We had people staying with us for two months paying top dollar because they needed rooms during one of our busiest time periods. Then, they also made a donation to a charitable organization to help the loggerhead sea turtles on Tybee Island.”

Another example Kaufman cited of the film industry providing support for Savannah nonprofits is at downtown’s Davenport House. “The film ‘Underground’ was shot at the Davenport House in part,” said Kaufman, who sits on the board at the Davenport House. “The money they paid Davenport was a huge win for the nonprofit.”

Mike Neal, owner of boat tour company Bull River Cruises, said 2016 was a huge year for his business working with the film industry. “I provide boats, water safety and expertise. I just purchased another vessel to be used in filming because of the activity we have here,” said Neal.

He continued that businesses wanting to work with the film industry have to be responsive to the film industry’s needs.

“The three key things vendors need to be (able) to work with the film industry is they must be flexible, they must be fair, and they must be responsive,” said Neal. “You have to be able to work off-hours. The film industry works on a 24-hour film schedule at times.”

Another area necessary in the film industry is safety on the ground. Kennedy said, “We’ll bring in police officers and pay them overtime to keep everyone safe and monitor traffic.”

Richard Poncinie, CEO of Saber Security & Investigations, works with the film industry often. His security company has worked with films such as “Magic Mike,” “Baywatch,” “Dirty Grandpa,” “The Do-Over,” and “The Leisure Seeker.”

“When productions come up, they’re temporary in nature,” Poncinie said. “There’s a lot of work for the duration of the film. We hire additional staff and train them. Typically, a team will be between 30 and 40 people. We make sure we give job opportunities to locals.”

Saber Security & Investigations works with the film industry in a variety of capacities. “We did crowd control for ‘The Do-Over’ when they were shooting in the Historic District,” he said. “We also secured and monitored the film equipment up and down Bay Street overnight and during the day,” he said.

Scenic artist and construction coordinator Jim Passanante has a broad role, as well.

“I’m in charge of everything you see in a film: from painting houses, to trucks, to making things look old and making things look new,” he said.

Passanante explained the importance of being timely when working with the film industry.

“When I need paint, for instance, I need it immediately,” he said. “On one film, I needed about $355,000 worth of paint. The first guy didn’t come through so the other guy got the business because he had what we needed and he delivered on time.”

Britney Burnham, an employee at Sherwin-Williams Paint Store on Jones Street, knows that call.

“We carry what the film industry needs and everything has been very smooth. And they’ve given us more leads with people in the same industry,” she said. “We got a lot more business working with the film industry in Savannah.”

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