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The Artist Heads to the Savannah Film Festival

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I have been the Special Programming Director for the Savannah Film Festival for the past several years and will be blogging about the ins and outs of planning a festival, and maybe sharing a little gossip along the way.

As the Special Programming Director, my role includes securing major films for the festival's gala evening screenings as well as inviting down stars to be honored and to otherwise participate in the festival, be it promoting their films or to meet and educate students at SCAD.

Now in it's 14th year, the Savannah Film Festival is hosted by SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design), so a lot of thought and choices I make are based on 1) what will appeal to and be useful for the students, and 2) what will appeal to the general public of Savannah and the many tourists and industry folk who come in for the festival.

Some of our Special Screenings last year included: Black Swan, Rabbit Hole, Blue Valentine, and 127 Hours. Over the years attendees and honorees have included: Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Isabella Rossellini, Peter O'Toole, Woody Harrelson, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Jane Fonda, James Franco, Sidney Lumet, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Renner, Tommy Lee Jones, John Waters, George Segal, Alec Baldwin, Roger Ebert, Terrence Malick, Sydney Pollack, Vanessa Redgrave and Milos Forman.

I wasn't going to blog about any of the films I'm programming -- especially before we officially announce our lineup -- but The Weinstein Company offered us The Artist as one of our special screenings this year and I was lucky enough to see it last week before it appears at Toronto.

For those of you who don't know, The Artist is a silent, black and white film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius and stars French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo with featured performances by John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller. It was the breakout hit at the Cannes Film Festival this spring and was promptly snapped up by the Weinstein Company for release in the States this Thanksgiving

Usually I dismiss much of the buzz from Cannes because so many of the "hit" movies are dark, artsy and pretentious... very French. We've shown a couple of the Palme D'Or winners over the years, but oftentimes the Savannah crowd leaves the theaters baffled and disappointed. This film, however, is just as good as I'd heard, if not better.

I decided midway through my viewing that I want to open the festival with it. It seems like the perfect fit. First of all, it's about movies and it's a celebration of old Hollywood. Also it's about an artist struggling with his pride and defending his art form. The film takes place in Hollywood in 1927-1931 when movies are transitioning from silent to "talkies". Dujardin plays a veteran silent movie actor and Bejo plays a young star who rises to prominence in the talkies just as Dujardin's life and career spiral down the drain.

I also found the movie to be an interesting allegory for the current transition between print and digital media. But maybe that's just the world I live in.

I suspect that there's going to be a bit of debate in the film festival office when I tell them I want to open the festival with The Artist (if you're reading this guys: Surprise!). The Festival Director has final approval over the schedule I present. I don't blame their concern. I went in to it kind of dreading watching a silent, black and white movie for 2 hours. But it won me over quickly and I left the theatre with a big stupid grin on my face.

Opening Night is traditionally a slot for a big glitzy starry film and the Savannah audience, though very savvy, has certain expectations from us. I know it's risky to open the festival with a silent black and white film in a dated aspect ratio (to more authentically look like a movie from the 1920s). For me (and I'm assuming the rest of the festival staff), the most satisfying moment is sitting in the theatre watching a film we knew was a bold choice, and realizing that all 1100 people in the theatre are completely riveted to the screen. It doesn't always happen, but when it does it's magical.

This is a movie that I truly believe is the perfect way to set the tone for the festival as our opener. Hopefully I will be able to make a compelling argument. We will have to wait and see what happens when we announce our final lineup in October.

The Savannah Film Festival runs from October 29 - to November 5. For more information, visit www.scad.edu/filmfest.