To mark the 25th anniversary of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, now underway, SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace reflects on her favorite memories and moments. The festival is one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, and SCAD is one of our Best Film Schools in the U.S. and Canada.
The SCAD Savannah Film Festival enchants filmgoers and filmmakers alike, where cinema icons walk (and occasionally cartwheel across!) the red carpet, screen their Oscar-bound films, and share their brilliance in SCAD masterclasses and panels packed to the rafters with the SCAD student stars of tomorrow.
What began 25 years ago as a small festival in a sleepy Southern city has grown into the world’s largest film festival hosted by a university. This year, as SCAD celebrates our silver anniversary, I’m reminded of the thousands of memorable moments we’ve shared over the last quarter century… from Sir Ian McKellen (rap-battling Hamlet with SCAD performers) to another Hamlet (Sir Kenneth Branagh) huddling backstage with students, discussing the art of stagecraft.
Students flock to SCAD to share the stage with Hollywood A-listers, screen their films for producers, filmmakers, and Oscar winning actors, and bump into their heroes at coffee shops on Broughton Street. The festival creates myriad once-in-a-lifetime memories for our students while simultaneously serving—by design—as a springboard to launch film careers in production and performance. Casting agents, producers, directors, and a host of other pros come to Savannah and to SCAD to get first dibs on the best new film talent.
The alchemy of so much industry and student talent and so many great films and parties all in one quaint city, all in the space of a week (a week that has happened every autumn for the last quarter-century), creates truly memorable moments for our community. When people ask why SCAD devotes so much time and energy to hosting this weeklong celebration of movie magic every fall, here are some of the stories I like to share:
1. In 1999, after a screening of TheThin Red Line, I observed a student speaking with director Terence Malick for nearly an hour, enthusiastically discussing how one expresses philosophy and ideas through film. When the conversation was over, the student turned to a festival staff member and said, “I get it now. We have this festival so that I can talk to Terence Malick for an hour!” Exactly!
2. I’ll never forget the 2019 night two SCAD film students approached honoree Alan Cumming on Savannah’s Broughton Street and dreamily asked if he would appear in their student film. “I would love to,” he said. The next morning, after his masterclass with the students, Alan joined the cast and filmed his scenes! Only at SCAD.
3. In 2004, beloved critic Roger Ebert led students in an epic, three-day dissection of Citizen Kane. “When you see something you want to discuss, we’ll stop the film and talk,” he said. Every minute or two, someone would shout, “Stop!” and ask a question. At one point, a student spotted an editing error. “There!” the student said, “The hat moved!” Roger couldn’t believe it. “The hat moved?” he said, rewinding the scene. “I’ve never noticed that! The hat moved!” He was ecstatic to see something new in a film he’d viewed a hundred times.
4. In 2016, after the screening of Moonlight, Mahershala Ali and his Moonlight co-star Ashton Sanders conducted what may have been the most meaningful Q&A in festival history. They spoke about how to maintain your values while making difficult creative decisions, and when student questions were directed at Mahershala, he selflessly invited Ashton to share his own insights. It was a valuable lesson for our students, to see this mega-movie star shine a light on his up-and-coming castmate.
5. A few years ago, SCAD debuted the world’s first VR musical, Say It with Music. What an unforgettable memory — to see audience members emerge from the theater with tears of empathy at the storytelling power of this technological feat—especially when the audience included La La Land director Damien Chazelle. “That was amazing,” he said afterwards to the student filmmakers, who then promptly began floating three feet off the ground.
And one final bonus memory I’d be remiss to omit: The year was 1998, and we’d just launched this new festival in our splendid little city. Would people come? Would it last? Our very first guest was A Room with a View director James Ivory, one of the great gentlemen of filmmaking. At the end of his visit, in which he engaged with students every day, he turned to Danny Filson, executive director of the festival for many years, and said, “Danny, this has been, for me, a time out of time. Thank you.” That’s when we knew: We had something special here at SCAD. The Savannah Film Festival exists as a time out of time—and time to shine—for stars and students alike. Join us this month as we celebrate cinema in all its past, present, and future glory. Lights, camera, SCAD!
The SCAD Savannah Film Festival runs through Oct. 29 in Savannah, Georgia. You can learn more about the festival here.