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:
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.