Deborah Kerr had never made a film before, but she knew a good story when she saw one.
Kerr had watched her husband, George “Buddy” Kerr, work as The Tampa Tribune’s production manager for decades, even through layoffs. A daily reader of the newspaper, she's long marveled at the massive printing press that hummed through the building. If people knew what actually went into making this, they’d appreciate it more, she thought.
Someone should make a short film showing a day in the life of a newspaper, she told him. She’d even figure out how to do it.
Filmmaking is a “second life” for Kerr, a Plant City mother of four and grandmother of eight. “I just dove in and surrounded myself with great people and did it.”
Although she has a Hollywood twig on the family tree — her grandmother’s cousin is the father of Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine — her inspiration was her grandfather Owen Ricker.
“I cannot remember a time when he did not have a camera in his hand or a big video recorder on his shoulder,” she said. “He filmed everything! He even had a lighting kit he rigged up and carried with him everywhere.”
Deborah Kerr worked various jobs while she and her husband raised their family. She helped put on concerts at the Dallas Bull in Tampa and also worked at a water softening company.
But as the Tribune went through downturns and she noticed other newspapers closing, her passion emerged.
“I didn’t understand why newspapers didn’t do better PR for themselves,” she said, thinking an educational video about 20 minutes long might help.
When the publication sold its downtown Tampa building in 2015 to a Miami developer, Buddy relented to his wife’s enthusiasm, figuring they’d capture what they could about the changing times and the people who made the Tribune tick.
She formed a production company, Be Brave Productions, and obtained $10,000 in financing from a friend, Jacob Gerzenshtein, a Lakeland plastic surgeon who became an executive producer. She also spoke to the Tribune’s then-publisher Brian Burns, who admired her vision and cleared her to film throughout the building.
The paper had been through several rounds of layoffs by then, but the film crew found little resistance from the staff. “It’s almost like people had been beaten down,” she said. “[Then] I started asking questions, and you could see the life come back in the room.”
Then the story changed, and Kerr went with it: Kerr and her crew were filming the day the Tampa Bay Times shuttered the Tampa Tribune.
Instead of moving to a new building a year ago, the staff discovered that their main competitor, The Tampa Bay Times, had purchased the Tribune from the Revolution Capital Group, then immediately shut it down.
“Things started to unfold, and we just kept going,” she said.
Kerr, 51, and her crew, cinematographer Ian Longen and sound designer Jason Henne, weren’t allowed inside the meeting that announced the shutdown; even Tribune employees were told they had to turn off their phones at the time.
But her husband attended and filled them in, and they recorded people packing their belongings afterward.
“It was really devastating,” she recalled. “My heart was breaking — the first thing was shock, because my husband and everyone had lost their jobs — but I knew we had to record everything we could, because it was important. I had to switch gears... I don’t think I cried until after. It was just surreal.”
Although the film is an emotional tribute, its story goes beyond the Tribune: Newspapers are shuttering nationwide, which Kerr considers a threat to democracy. No one was talking about “fake news” a year ago, she said, but their interviews fit with the current zeitgeist.
“It’s a pretty powerful piece, and I hope it does something,” she said. “I honestly want to stop what’s going on with newspapers right now. … Friends tell me, ‘You can’t save newspapers,’ but I have to try.”
Kerr said she had no idea the paper would end as it did, but she knew “something wasn’t right” because of the downsizing. “It’s just chilling,” she said of her filming coinciding with the paper’s closing. “I must have had some kind of sense of what was going to happen.”
As the project grew, Kerr and her husband, also an executive producer, financed the rest. She said the final cost of the film is about $50,000.
The Kerrs want to show the film at colleges, universities and other media companies, hoping it will build an appreciation for print journalism. They’re also exploring other distribution options.
If anyone can respect their aim, it’s the staff who opened their workplace and hearts to the filmmakers.
“I’m looking forward to it (the premiere) and parts of me are dreading it, too, because who wants to relive that day?” said Kim MacCormack, who had been the Tribune’s entertainment editor for 15 years when it folded. She started at the paper in 1979 as an 18-year-old “copy kid” fetching coffee and research clippings. (Editor's note: Valerie Kalfrin worked at the Tribune for seven years as a crime reporter until a 2009 layoff, then worked for MacCormack as a freelancer.)
Today, on the one-year anniversary of the Tribune's closure, the 84-minute documentary Stop the Presses debuts at The Tampa Theatre (711 N. Franklin St.). The Trib would have been 124 years old this year.
“I get very emotional talking about that place and talking about those people and talking about what our mission was,” MacCormack said. “But in order to tell the story about what’s happening in journalism, you have to think beyond yourself for the greater good.”