Savannah Film Office director terminated in wake of complaints from major studio, state economic development officials

There is now a predictable pattern here in Savannah. City of Savannah officials will make some sort of decision — sometimes entirely reasonable, often debatable but justifiable, occasionally head-scratchingly strange.

But no matter the merits of the issue, commenters at SavannahNow and on social media assume that every decision is a result of idiocy, deception, or worse.

The recent firing of Jay Self, the director of the Savannah Film Office, has become the latest flashpoint for controversy. The firing was precipitated by issues surrounding the preparations for the current shooting of SpongeBob SquarePants 2.

But whether or not you’re interested in the insular dynamics of Savannah politics, you might be interested in this case, since it involves state and local economic development officials, the power of Paramount, and — at least according to one player in the drama — the future of the film industry in Savannah and in Georgia.

Through the Georgia Open Records Act, Savannah Morning News reporter Eric Curl obtained relevant emails from the state economic development office that included messages from Self, from Paramount’s Nan Morales, and Lee Thomas, Director of the Film, Music, & Digital Entertainment Division in the Georgia Department of Economic Development, among others.

From Curl’s piece about the emails, Film permits sparked fuss:

The emails sent between Sept. 10 and 23 reveal Paramount officials’ frustration in trying to obtain filming permits from the city for the “SpongeBob Squarepants 2” movie.

They also reflect Self’s determination to withhold those permits until he felt local businesses, in his words, were fairly compensated for any hit to their bottom line.

At one point, Brad Carlson from Paramount was so frustrated he said the production company would not be shooting in Savannah again, according to an email from Lee Thomas, director of the film, music and digital entertainment division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

You can skip the rest of what I have to say and look at the emails yourself:

Emails between Jay Self, Paramount Productons and SEDA by SavannahNow.com

The City of Savannah Film Office plays a variety of roles, including recruiting projects, working with producers, connecting local independent contractors to producers, and protecting local citizens and businesses impacted by various film and photography shoots.

Those conflicting goals are undoubtedly hard to manage, but Self has been director since the creation of the office in 1995.

Much of the controversy this time around seems to have dealt with Paramount not presenting to the city a “formula” for compensating businesses impacted by the shoot.

In the exchange, Morales expresses frustration over the request for a “formula” and claims that Paramount is following standard procedure in striking deals with the over 100 businesses impacted.

A few key lines from some of the emails (just selections, obviously):

From Self to Morales after a 2.5 hour meeting failed to iron out differences:
“I am trying to keep an open mind in order to consider your approach and help to find and advocate for a cooperative and mutually acceptable path. This will require trust and respect. Without these, it would not be prudent for us to issue a permit.”

From Morales to Self, in an email later sent to Lee Thomas:
“I am not sure what agenda is not being met, and frankly, it is quite concerning when you keep mentioning that we need to present a “formula” to you and the City for our permit. I have never […] received such a request from any film office […]”

From Self to Morales:
“Having an agreed approach before you started was for your benefit. It would have allowed us to protect you from unreasonable demands. […] As it is, your approach of paying people for the parking in front of their business causes us problems now and into the future. […] My job is to balance the needs of the production with those of our citizens. When in doubt, I focus on the citizens. “Trust us, we have done this before” and “This is how we do it in Miami” do not alleviate doubt. Dismissing the City’s needs as unimportant or unwarranted generates doubt. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it false.”

From Lee Thomas to Pat Wilson, COO of the Georgia Department of Economic Development:
“Jay Self is still holding the filming permits in Savannah hostage… got a call from the Paramount exec — very upset.”

From Wilson to Thomas:
“I asked Trip [Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority] to call the Mayor asap.”

From Thomas to Wilson:
“I spoke to Jay Self a few minutes ago — not a good conversation. […] I’ve also spoken to Stratton Leopold, who is on Savannah’s Film Board and was a VP of Production at Paramount for years, and he said that he is trying to stay out of the politics of it, but has known Nan for 30 years and told her that he would help if needed. […] Jay has spoken today with Brad Carlson from Paramount and said that they had a good conversation, however, in my conversation with Brad he was extremely frustrated, said they will not be shooting in Savannah again, love Georgia, but that this will make us look bad, etc.”

From Tollison to Wilson and Thomas:
“[…] I can promise you that this will not happen again with future productions. I know that Savannah has some serious damage control to do on behalf of the future of film in not just Savannah, but Georgia.”

Click here to read Self’s prepared statement at his termination hearing.

Of course, the emails only tell part of the story. Personal politics and even grudges might have come into play at various points, and of course there were other communications — phone calls, in-person meetings, emails not obtained by the SMN, etc. — that are not part of this record.

But the story still raises all sorts of interesting questions about the role of a local body like SEDA, the relationship between SEDA and state and local officials, the coordination between the Savannah Film Office and the economic development folks in Atlanta, the power that officials in Atlanta might have in terms of City of Savannah personnel decisions, and on and on.

13 comments

  1. NoTeabagging says:

    From the above excerpts It seems odd that a local film office would get involved in direct negotiation with residents and businesses of a shooting location. This is the job of Location Managers. They work with the residents, etc. directly and get permissions or negotiate fees for use and/or loss of business. They explain the schedule and work with everyone to keep ‘business as usual’ for as long as possible with constant communication. That is standard practice.

    Local governments have permitting rules and ordinances for film shoots. They may require curfews, minimum number of off duty police for traffic control, fees for street closures and other items that affect everyday business. They do not set rates for location fees for private residences and businesses.

    Specific complaints from residents or businesses would help understand this situation. None seem to be forthcoming. Bad location managers can ruin an area for future work if they do not take care of the ‘locals’ and local government red tape can also discourage filmmakers.

    It would be a shame to scare off productions companies from one of our jewels that attracts film and TV business. Luckily, the rest of the state can, and does, engage production companies to bring business to their communities.

    • Bill Dawers says:

      Morales addresses this issue in her long email to Self around Sept. 10. She says that she was using a local location team (one that is listed on the film office website) and at that point expected to sign agreements with “no issues” for 97 of 137 locations, She expected the vast majority of the rest to be worked out through negotiation with the businesses or individuals impacted, with only 7 holdouts likely.

      I haven’t heard any specific complaints as of yet.

  2. barstool69 says:

    Savannahnow.com commenters are quite possibly the worst people on the face of this earth – uninformed, unintelligent, vitriolic, racist, etc.

  3. Jon Lester says:

    I’m sure Paramount will be back. Meanwhile, I hope the SFO won’t give me any grief for permitting the very modest shoots I want to do next year, beyond the requirement to spend more on an E&O policy than I would otherwise budget for my whole production.

  4. seekingtounderstand says:

    Hollywood supports democrats. Why is a republican state giving them so much money in tax revenue? Maybe its time to stop subsidizing this if its not helping local businesses.

    • drjay says:

      this bizarre episode aside, the film industry has been a net positive for the sav’h area from what i understand, they have posted revenue numbers in the sav’h paper before…and anecdotally the ones i’ve been involved with have used local catering, stayed in local hotels, the crews have hit local bars, local extras and even guild workers have been paid–and there have even been tourists that have added sav’h and tybee to their travel itineraries to see sights from movies like “last song”…

      • Bill Dawers says:

        Agree with all drjay’s points. Savannah also has enough independent contractors and freelancers that we could staff pretty much all the positions on a major production. These people would not be living here (buying homes, paying taxes, etc.) without regular work coming in from outside.

    • NoTeabagging says:

      The state does not “give” money to film companies. The tax incentive requires a certain level of investment ($500k) before the incentive pays back. Taxes on certain purchases and rentals are not reimbursable. So not all tax revenue is lost. Film productions help thousands of individuals and local businesses wherever they go. There is an increase in retail, restaurant, office and residential rental income, service industries, and employment for Georgians. This is a direct benefit to thousands of Georgians affected by the economic downturn.

      Georgia businesses have developed a huge amount of support facilities, equipment, personnel and talent over 40 years. We must stay competitive or the business will go to other states.

      You can get the facts here:
      http://www.georgia.org/industries/entertainment-industry/Pages/production-incentives.aspx

  5. NoTeabagging says:

    From the AJC, October 12, 2012
    “the Georgia Department of Economic Development released the state film office’s fiscal year 2012 economic impact numbers for the film industry — $3.1 billion. The state is currently hosting 32 film and television shows, from home improvement shows to scripted dramas and major feature films.”
    “A 2011 study indicated that for every dollar the state spends on tax credits, $1.24 is earned in state and local taxes. This does not take into account the value of having Jennifer Aniston talk about how she loves Clarkesville on “Good Morning America,” or the Georgia logo being on the credit roll of a film like “The Blind Side.” It does not represent tourists who travel to Georgia to see the Mystic Grill in Covington from “Vampire Diaries.”

  6. seekingtounderstand says:

    You got to admit its a strange union Hollywood and a conservative state.
    Most conservatives think Hollywood does not produce any good movies anymore.
    Yet we are booming with the business of making those movies.
    Hey this would make a great movie……………….South lowers values to make a buck.
    Would they be here if the tax benefits where not available?

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