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A Medient danger?
New studio proposed for Effingham raises some eyebrows
A recent Kumaran production

He is an expert in film tax credits and incentives.

— From Manu Kumaran's IMDb bio page

A guy comes to you one day. He owns a company with zero dollars in the bank and stock trading at about a buck a share.

Just a year ago his company was in the business of developing golf resorts in the Nevada desert. But now it's a film production company.

He wants you to spend a million bucks or so to develop a 1500-acre piece of land for his new movie studio. He also wants to be exempt from paying property taxes for 20 years.

He says it will be the largest film/TV/video game production studio in North America, complete with solar panels and beautiful waterfalls.

No kidding: Waterfalls.

He says he'll bring 1200 jobs to your area, with an average salary of $39,000. There will be childcare on site for those employees, he says.

He's still trying to get $90 million in financing to begin to do all that.

Many of us might have shown the guy the door, with varying degrees of politeness, about halfway through that spiel.

But not the Effingham County Industrial Authority. They not only agreed in principle to the deal proposed by filmmaker Manu Kumaran — who has had some success with low-budget Bollywood-style films and a couple of English-language arthouse flicks — they enthusiastically trumpeted it as a major economic development.

Did we mention that Kumaran's company bears the name Medient — oddly similar to Meddin Studios, a production house in Savannah?

"It's all too easy to let your emotions and optimism get involved when people start throwing around big numbers. It's such a complex industry," says Steve Smith, a partner in Meddin Studios, which recently inked a deal to move from Louisville Road into a larger space in the former Citi Trends building downtown.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the story unfold," Smith says. "Let's hope the vetting process is thorough."

Tommy Holland has been a longtime member of the Savannah Film Commission; his term expires soon. He has decades of involvement in the local film scene, going back to pre-Forrest Gump days.

"Everyone wishes the best for this project, but frankly we've seen these kinds of ideas come and go before," Holland says. "God bless 'em, it would be wonderful if it could work out. But ninety million dollars is an awful lot of money to raise in this environment — this country is now cutting funding for air traffic control."

Holland also mentions the impracticality of a proposal built around the enticement of so many full-time jobs.

"Their proposal mentions that they want to return to the old-fashioned studio system. But there's a reason the film industry moved away from that a long time ago," he says, pointing out that the vast majority of films today are made by crews hired on a project basis, rather than by studios with full-time employees.

Local production designer and technical director Michael Gaster, a former member of the City of Savannah Cultural Affairs Commission, also weighs in.

"Think how many politicians have said things like, 'this will create 1,200 jobs,' and 'this will be environmentally friendly,' and 'we'll have health care and daycare for workers and their families,'" says Gaster.

"I can't help but be skeptical of a Nevada real estate marketer-turned-film producer who talks like your everyday politician, eyeing Effingham County with a name similar to an established area film/video production house," he concludes.