Associated Press Writer
MELDRIM — From “Forrest Gump” to an upcoming “SpongeBob SquarePants” sequel, a long list of Hollywood movies have been filmed on location in coastal Georgia. Now a production company setting up shop west of Savannah says it will make movies full time at a sprawling studio complex planned off Interstate 16.
Medient Studios Inc. broke ground last week on a 1,550-acre tract in Effingham County once used by timber companies to grow and harvest pine trees. Medient promises to build a $90 million studio campus that will operate as a film factory, churning out six to eight feature films a year. Everything from screenwriting and principal photography to soundtrack recording and special effects will be handled onsite.
It’s a plan that calls for ambitious growth for a company with just 22 employees and less than $53,000 in the bank as of its last filing with government regulators. Medient is pushing to finish its first soundstage by March so it can get to work shooting its first, as yet unnamed, movie with about 500 employees. Within five years the studio plans to finish its production facilities and employ about 1,200 workers.
It’s the ability to handle every aspect of filmmaking in one place, and to work on different projects in shifts around the clock, that will make the studio profitable, said Manu Kumaran, Medient’s CEO.
“We’re not trying to figure out how to grab electricity from lightning,” said Kumaran, whose father is a prominent Indian film director and producer. “We’re just making movies, which is a very simple process.”
Officials in Effingham County, about 20 miles west of Savannah, have embraced their chance to become a part of the movie business. Local economic developers reached a deal to lease Medient the $10 million property for 20 years, with no rent due during the first two years. The county is guaranteeing $1.25 million in infrastructure improvements to the property such as roads, water and sewer lines. The state of Georgia also awarded Medient $3 million in incentives for site preparation and construction, but only in installments based on the number of jobs the project has generated.
John Henry, chief executive of the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority, noted that the vast majority of residents commute to jobs outside the county. If Medient can deliver on 1,200 workers —with jobs ranging from carpenters who build movie sets to computer programmers working in special effects — it would boost the county’s workforce by more than 10 percent.
“A lot of people think it’s just going to be actors and cameramen, but that’s far from the case,” said Henry, who acknowledged during groundbreaking ceremonies Thursday that he’s more used to dealing with manufacturers and companies seeking to build distribution warehouses. “It’s a little scary because we’re not as familiar with the film industry, and it’s not as easy to plug into our spreadsheets we use all the time.”
Despite its big goals, Medient is still a small company. Kumaran said the studio now employees 22 people, essentially its executives and top management. According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Medient had $52,094 in the bank as of June 30 and saw net earnings of $439,687 during the first six months of the year.
The company also had no line of credit until Aug. 16, when Medient secured a revolving line of $5 million with lender TCA Global Credit Master Fund at an interest rate of 12 percent.
Medient already has 15 films under its belt, most of them produced for Indian markets. Its last project was the 2012 film “Yellow” directed by Nick Cassavetes, whose other films include “The Notebook.”
Kumaran said Medient has agreements with partners to help it purchase filmmaking equipment and finance the first phase of studio construction. He brushed aside any suggestion the company won’t be able to realize its ambitions.
“We’ve been told multiple times this cannot be done, you cannot survive, and you might as well take up fishing or farming,” Kumaran said. “But we’re here, and we’re happy to be here.”
Medient’s plan for success is largely based on producing movies in genres such as horror and science fiction, which are able to sell tickets without major stars attached, and to make those movies for international markets. For example, the studio might film with an English-speaking American cast during the day, then at night shoot the same scenes with an Indian cast for distribution overseas. Long-term plans include adding on-site housing for employees as well as a large concert venue and tourist attractions, which would push the studio’s total price tag to an estimated $300 million.
Jay Self, director of Savannah’s city Film Services Department, said he’s seen dozens of pitches for movie studio startups during his 18 years of wooing moviemakers to the Georgia coast. He said the Medient project is the only one to actually break ground.
“It’s always a gamble,” Self said. “They have every reason not to do this. You don’t go to all this trouble and all this expense if you don’t believe in what you’re doing.”