It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, so it’s of little surprise that Bay Street Bar and Grill is empty as a graveyard. But that’ll change soon.
“When I first started I was getting maybe, if I was lucky, five people. And now it’s 20. It’s been a lot better in the last few months,” said filmmaker Laura Blair.
She’s referring to Film Bar Mondays, a casual weekly bar meetup event for filmmakers that began in Atlanta in 2014. Two years later, Blair decided to spearhead a Jacksonville chapter in an attempt to unify a latent independent film scene. Although its regulars have launched several collaborative projects, the idea is more to just to get people talking.
“My frustration with [Jacksonville] is that it’s not actually a very tight-knit film community. It’s very spread out and niche-y,” she said. “The whole purpose [of Film Bar] is just so we can be friends with everybody and come together.”
Despite Bay Street’s initial, crypt-like atmosphere, soon enough, her vision begins to crystalize as a few folks start to trickle in, order beers and start gabbing. Ever heard film nerds dissect “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” with straight faces? That happened.
At one point in the evening, one of the TVs above the bar playing a commercial urging older folks to get colonoscopies catches the eye of attendee Andrew Fallon. One of his. “It was super fun to shoot a colonoscopy commercial,” he cracked, but he’s one of the very few lucky ones in Jacksonville — he has a steady-paying gig in film.
Blair is in the same boat. Naturally reserved, she’s especially careful with her words when discussing fundamental challenges like obtaining permits and finding competent crews that filmmakers in more creative realms face here.
“The filmmakers are here, the talent is here, they want to do stuff.” However, she said, “They’re all very low/no budget type of things, so people aren’t professionally working in features here.”
It wasn’t always that way. Over a century ago, the major silent film studios would set up shop in Jacksonville during the winter, fleeing New York City’s less temperate climate. It was Hollywood before Hollywood, essentially, but the local government’s acrimonious relationship with the studios ensured Jacksonville’s golden age in film didn’t last long.
However, a thirst for film never left, as evidenced by the multiple Jax-area showcases and venues where local filmmakers are able to screen their work. Chief among them is the Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points, which routinely schedules such screenings and local film-friendly festivals.
“I’m happy to provide a home for local filmmakers,” said Sun-Ray’s co-founder, Tim Massett. “They deserve a chance to see their work on the biggest screen possible to share with friends/families and the community at large.”
The trouble, of course, is getting things made in the first place. If there’s anyone who’s going to successfully sell the idea of Jacksonville as a filmmaking destination, it’s probably writer/director Tim Driscoll, who filmed his 2014 feature “The Lengths” partially in Jacksonville.
He arrives at Bay Street a little after 8 p.m., and almost immediately the energy level in the room ratchets up. Talking a million miles an hour as he discusses his fully conscious decision to stick it out as a filmmaker in Jacksonville, his enthusiasm is measured, but palpable.
“If I was gonna be good,” he said, “I was gonna be good wherever, and I like to be comfortable, and I want to be someplace that I knew and liked and was familiar with.”
Driscoll did try L.A. for awhile, and hated it. But the ready access to necessary resources he had there is not something that’s easily replicated here.
“There’s certain jobs — there aren’t enough reasons to be doing those jobs because no one’s paying you,” he lamented. “No one’s watching a movie going, ‘That gaffer was really good!’ So finding talented crew and grooming talented crew is hard.”
Finding funding can be even harder. “[Film] is a very scary investment. Film is so often not considered a high art like dance or music or theater — like, ‘Ok, I’m contributing to the arts.’” To investors, he said, “Film is supposed to make money because it’s also commerce.”
The Film Bar crew has some ideas for solving these problems. Blair wants to start a local crew peer training program. Driscoll is particularly hyped on the idea of a Jacksonville short film fund that would allow quality short films to get made on reasonable budgets and seen at national festivals, thereby generating some investor interest in the local scene.
Whatever the best solution turns out to be, for Jacksonville’s filmmakers, there’s no more natural way to formulate it than sharing some beers with good company on a Monday night.