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Curtain not closing on Medient

POSTED: June 19, 2014 6:06 p.m.
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Patrick Donahue

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In spite of the tumultuous moves at Medient Studios, Inc., last week, maybe the planned massive studioplex won’t be left on the cutting room floor.

Jake Shapiro, the new chief executive officer for Medient, said last week the company is going to get to the business at its essence — making movies. And it plans to start producing movies locally.

The talk after the moves and upheaval can be seen as a validation of co-founder Manu Kumaran’s vision. Shapiro and new board chairman Charles Koppelman said last week they are committed to the movie-making process Kumaran laid out more than a year ago — shooting the same movie in a handful of different languages for distribution in multiple markets, using technology and other ways to curtail labor costs.

The business model, on its face, certainly looks appealing. Audiences in countries get to see and hear the movie in their own language, instead of the voices being dubbed over or subtitles across the bottom of the screen. Audiences will have a more instant and direct connection to the movie in front of them.

But Kumaran’s removal from the leadership of the company he founded was a repudiation of his management style and approach.

“The most important message is that this is a team that is being led by the reality dream team,” Shapiro said last week. “The reality dream team of our board of directors and our current management team have all proven themselves in entertainment, politics, government, film, television, music, and using all those resources with a laser focus to create the shareholder value, to minimize the excessive overhead and to make movies that generate the profits and the growth and the value of this company. And part of the key of making those movies is building the studioplex.”

But along the way, there have been setbacks. B.L. Harbert, originally announced as the general contractor, and Medient parted ways. New York financier Matthew Mellon was named a principal but departed just a few months later.

It was evident earlier this year the frustration as the scope of the first phase changed. Instead of the studios and other production facilities going up, Medient decided to add the housing component, greatly multiplying the need for water and sewer, which raised eyebrows with IDA officials. Suddenly, the amount of water needed jumped from around 100,000 gallons per day, within the IDA’s capability, to several millions of gallons a day, which is far beyond what they could provide and beyond what they were led to believe they would need to deliver.

It was back in March when Kumaran told the IDA he expected to be in construction in eight weeks.

“I am tired of projecting things that don’t happen on the date,” he said then.

Apparently, so too were the investors and others he brought on board.

When Kumaran talked with people from around the community, he displayed a charming and engaging style. There were plenty of skeptics last August at the Effingham Chamber of Commerce’s annual retreat as Kumaran started talking about his plans for the property just outside of Meldrim. By the time he was done, he largely had won the room over.

“I’m a simple man from a faraway land,” he likes to say.

But Shapiro, Koppelman, an entertainment industry veteran, financier Joseph Giamichael and former New York governor David Paterson decided Kumaran’s gregarious nature wasn’t enough anymore.

Shapiro said “The Damned,” set and planned to be shot in Savannah, will go ahead as scheduled. The espionage thriller “Kickback,” with a stellar cast of John Cusack, Rutger Hauer, Sean Astin and Mischa Barton, probably won’t get made, at least not by Medient.

Medient, founded in 2002, has made 14 movies. In addition to “Kickback,” the studio also had in the works “Kilat,” a martial arts film, and “The Battle for Benaras,” a documentary on the recent elections in India. Kumaran was the producer on “The Battle for Benaras,” and it has been scheduled for an August release. The highly-acclaimed “Yellow” is still scheduled for a late summer release.

“One of the most important things for us right now is to generate as much film production, the best content at the lowest cost. And by shooting films in and around Effingham County, Savannah, Atlanta, our cost structures are going to be more attractive than shooting overseas,” Shapiro said.

It’s evident the Leaf, the suspension bridge and the on-site housing for workers, along with the planned hotels and retail shops on what was going to be the public access portion of the property, will remain only in plans. Also, whatever the IDA has spent and will spend on the project to get it developed was going to have be spent on whatever or whoever comes to the tract. If the deal with Medient does fall through, should something follow it, the IDA almost assuredly would be asked to put some skin in that game — which it already has.

While Shapiro, Koppelman and the new team have pared back the grand scale of the vision and have pared down the studio’s structure, it also may make it easier for what has been dreamed to this point finally open for audiences.

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