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Film industry programs, work keep grads in Savannah

  • Kareem McMichael, Jeff Williams, and Josiah Whitfield attend the recent Savannah Area Film Office networking event. (Photo by Eva Fedderly)
  • Savannah Film Office networking event. (Photo by Eva Fedderly)

Thanks to state tax incentives for Hollywood filmmakers, the film industry is burgeoning in Savannah, and local students are discovering they don’t need to move to Los Angeles or New York City to find work and shape their careers.

“I always thought I’d have to move out of Savannah in order to work in the film industry, but I saw that things were starting taking off,” said Kareem McMichael, a graduate of Savannah State University. “Now I have friends in the business who’ve moved to Hollywood, but moved back to Savannah because they realized they can achieve their goals here.”

McMichael produced a documentary, “Road to Desegregation,” which won the award for Best Documentary with Social Justice Theme at the Humboldt International Film Festival, and aired on SGTV in Savannah. He also received a certificate from Savannah Technical College’s Georgia Film Academy, a new program that launched in the summer of 2016 to help prepare students for on-set careers and to supplement Savannah’s industry professionals.

The Georgia Film Academy at Savannah Tech launched in the summer of 2016 and offers two semesters of film-focused learning. The first semester provides students with an overview of the film industry, which includes familiarizing them with over 110 jobs on set, from hair and makeup, to electric, to camera work. The second semester educates them on on-set specialties.

John Grace, an instructor at the Georgia Film Academy, has been in the film industry for 30 years. Many of Grace’s students aren’t young adults, he said, they’re adults pursuing film for second and third careers. Grace’s students have collectively worked on fourteen features, four television shows, and dozens of short films in Savannah.

“Almost all of the students are local, or some of them are returning to Savannah,” said Grace. “It’s nice to have them coming back to take advantage of the opportunities here. There’s a lot of work and we need more technicians to satisfy the need.”

The Georgia Film Academy is one of Savannah’s three main programs that offers a film-focused education. Savannah College of Art and Design offers an master’s of fine art, masters and bachelors degrees in film and television. Savannah State University offers a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in audio and video production.

Katie Schuck earned her M.F.A. in Film and Television from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2012 then spent the next four years working in television in New York City. It wasn’t until she started getting calls from Georgia productions that she decided to move back to Savannah to become a part of the film industry. Today, she works as a locations specialist at the Savannah Area Film Office.

“Savannah’s retention rate is high for students who work within the film industry,” Schuck said. “Right now, we can comfortably crew two feature film productions simultaneously. We need to build the numbers to sustain the amount of work that wants to come here. There’s tons of interest. Our goal is to make Savannah a coastline hub for Hollywood across the board.”

There are myriad jobs and professions that can touch the film industry, according to Schuck, ranging from caterers, to paint shops, to dry cleaners.

“Locally, we have a high need for accountants, script supervisors, and prop masters,” she continued. “These positions are coming in from Hollywood, Atlanta, and New York, so those are some of the many professions we can build up here in Savannah.”

She added, “We’ve been getting the best compliments from Hollywood and New York producers about our local crew base, especially our film students.”

“The film industry took the state of Georgia by storm,” said William Martin, Savannah State’s program director of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. Savannah State offers a four-year degree at their Department of Journalism and Mass Communications with a concentration in audio and video production. Martin has an undergraduate degree from Savannah State and a film certificate from the Georgia Film Academy.

“When the film industry got here, there weren’t enough people to fulfill the industry’s needs. There was a need for talented, skilled people. All we needed to do was prepare our students,” he said.

As the film industry and landscape changes in Georgia, students are realizing they don’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles to be successful in film. “Now we have Georgia natives who are realizing they can stay at home and do what they love,” he said.

“I always thought I’d have to leave Georgia, but then the film industry came to me,” he added. “And a lot of our students are seeing that now.”

At a recent networking event held by the Savannah Area Film Office on August 10 at downtown’s Indigo Hotel, about 150 industry professionals hobnobbed over drinks and tapas.

“People who are in the film business in Savannah live here; they’re not from Hollywood,” said Beth Nelson, executive director at the Savannah Area Film Office. “I think that’s a common misconception.”

“Savannah’s film industry is booming right now!” exclaimed Alana Hodges, a guest of the event, makeup artist, and graduate of the Georgia Film Academy. “This is where you need to be.”

Josiah Whitfield, another guest of the event, graduated from SCAD in May in Motion Media Design. “I’m looking for opportunities locally but I may go to New York City. I’m here to get my toes wet.”

Liz Kaiser is one of few female film editors in Savannah and owns Mad Law Media. She also is a graduate of SCAD in Film and Television. At the networking event, she told a group of professionals that she’d just given a talk to SCAD students that morning about finding success in the film industry in Savannah. “It’s a definitely a good idea to stay here. People are moving away to work but then realize they’re missing amazing film community and employment and support system. The local Savannah film community is a family.”

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