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Curtain rises on Effingham project

POSTED: March 21, 2013 8:51 p.m.
Courtesy of Medient Studios/

The illustration shows what Medient Studios has in mind for the Effingham Industrial Development Authority’s northern tract at the intersection of Interstate 16 and Old River Road. The studios and the Effingham IDA signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday, and the plans also call for hotels, retail, restaurants, botanical gardens and an amphitheater which will be open to the public.

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Evoking one of cinema’s most renowned closing lines of a movie, Manu Kumaran ushered in a partnership between his company and the Effingham Industrial Development Authority.


Kumaran and representatives from Medient Studios and the IDA entered into a memorandum of understanding Tuesday morning, and Kumaran laid out a sweeping and bold vision for the IDA’s Interstate 16 northern tract, plans that include a video game production facility, movie studios, hotels, botanical gardens and more.


“Hopefully, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship,” said Kumaran, the chairman and CEO of Medient Studios, echoing the final line of the classic movie “Casablanca.”


Once completed, the studio complex will be the largest movie production facility in the world outside of Asia.


“I stayed awake at night thinking about how so far beyond the imagination this is,” said Effingham IDA Chairman Dennis Webb. “But when you hear them explain their concept and how they want to do it, it makes sense. They have a workable plan. They have a business model that works. It can be done.”


Kumaran said the studio plans to make eight movies a year at its new home, and movies will be shot in four different languages.


“We want to start filming this year, for sure,” he said.


Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, Medient Studios will make a $90 million investment in Effingham County and is expected to have at least 1,000 employees within five years.


But the workforce level, with subsidiary development and other related jobs, could be three to five times that, according to officials.


“If we get the rest of this development, we could be looking at 3,000-5,000 jobs on this site,” said Effingham IDA CEO John Henry. “And that’s just direct jobs. That’s not indirect jobs throughout the community, with construction workers and restaurant workers. This is going to draw a lot of attention to this area. A lot of people are going to be coming into the area building new houses.”


Build-out of the site could take three to five years, according to Henry.


“They will be utilizing most of the tract,” he said. “They could squeeze what they need on a much smaller tract of land. This gives them the property to fully realize the vision they have for this. Not only are we providing the land for them to utilize and get a great project out of it, but the community will get a tremendous benefit out of it as well.”


Effingham won out over Savannah and Atlanta and over other states, including Pennsylvania.


Effingham IDA member Dick Knowlton, who once led the Savannah Economic Development Authority, was amazed at what could be in offing for the project.


“I’ve not worked on anything in this industry or anything with the potential growth that this has,” he said, “just in terms of size and impact. This is step one of many steps. But the biggest struggle is getting step one done.”


Knowlton sees Medient Studios having a reach beyond Effingham’s county line.


“This has the potential of impacting the entire region,” he said. “You could draw a 50-mile circle around, and that’s just the initial impact. If this happens, it’s going to change this whole region, this whole part of Georgia. Our biggest impact today is the port. This, if it works, could have an equal economic impact of the port.”


Most of the property will be public access, and there are plans for a botanical garden, a golf course and an amphitheater that will seat at least 15,000 people. There also will be hotels, shopping and restaurants planned for the area of the tract nearest Old River Road.


Work on the site could be several months away, as rezoning requests and master plans are completed and submitted for approval.


 “This is not the end of the process,” said Dan McRae, the bond attorney for the IDA. “This is the end of the beginning of the process.”


Under the terms of the MOU, the IDA will receive payments totaling $10 million over time. The IDA will enter a 20-year lease and provide $1.25 million for site development.


There are also community jobs and investment goals for the studio to reach before the IDA and Medient close on the deal.


“What we are formalizing today will be generating activity in Effingham for years to come,” McRae said.


The entire project also is planned to environmentally sustainable, Kumaran said. It will generate its own power from solar panels and none of the vehicles on the property will have combustion engines.


Kumaran also said what the architects have in mind for the buildings, including the amphitheater, will draw interest.


The language of movies
One of Medient Studios’ most recent productions is “Yellow,” which stars Sienna Miller, Melanie Griffith, David Morse, Ray Liotta and Gena Rowlands. Rowlands, twice nominated for an Academy Award, is also the mother of the movie’s director, Nick Cassavetes. “Yellow” made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September. Cassavetes, the son of late film director and actor John Cassavetes, also directed “She’s So Lovely” and “The Notebook.”


Medient also released “Storage 24” last year and merged into a publicly-traded company.


English will be one of the four languages in which movies will be shot, and  the same movie also may be shot in Spanish and Chinese.


“We want to look at Spanish very carefully,” Kumaran said. “It’s a market that is very underserved. You can’t ignore China. When you bring those markets in and address them, with local actors on screen, it helps audiences identify better with what’s going on on the screen.”


The company will think local and act global, with its reach to different cultures and languages, according to Kumaran. The company already makes films in four different languages and understands the concepts of working with different cultures, Kumaran said.


“You’re talking about creating a new paradigm,” he added. “It’s an exciting time in my life. I’m the son of a small arthouse filmmaker. We aren’t expected to think in these kinds of overarching ways. It’s humbling and exciting at the same time.”


Until construction of its production facilities is completed, the studio may look at using other arrangements to start work on its film projects.


More than just movies
Kumaran said the movie studio itself will employ about 400 people, and the video gaming center will employ another 200 people. By the time phase I of the project is completed, he expects a workforce of 1,200 on hand.


The project also fits in with what the IDA had in mind for the I-16 northern tract — even if making movies, video games and DVDs wasn’t the kind of manufacturing process they imagined.


“I would never have envisioned this, if it hadn’t come through late last summer,” Henry said. “I could have never pictured a development like this on that property. It adds a completely new sector to our economy here. It runs the gamut from cafeteria workers to cameramen. It’s going to be a fully-functional village with all the essential auxiliary services.”


Said Knowlton: “From my perspective, this would be the ideal experience. It’s one reason the authority has worked this hard, to bring it to this step. Hopefully, it will keep going.”


Aside from the hundreds of jobs for the studio, video gaming and DVD production facilities, hundreds more are anticipated to be generated through construction on the site and through the hotels and retail sectors.


“It’s still so magnificent that it’s hard to believe it’s in this community,” Henry said. “When you listen to the vision these guys, you really believe it’s possible. We want to see this move beyond the dream and the vision to the reality for this community.”

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