This story is part of First City Progress, a weekly series looking at new development in Savannah and the Coastal Empire. If there are projects you’re curious about or we’ve left out.
Vampires might be to thank for the new $40 million investment in Savannah’s film and television industry.
Taylor Owenby grew up in Covington, the small Georgia town where the popular teen show “The Vampire Diaries” filmed for eight seasons. He followed crews filming all over his hometown and saw familiar haunts transformed into Mystic Falls, VA, on the small screen. The experience sparked his decision to attend SCAD.
After several years making movies in Atlanta, Owenby returns to Savannah with writer and producer David Paterson (the inspiration, writer and producer behind the movie “Bridge to Terabithia,” based upon the book written by his mother Katherine Paterson) to open Kat-5 Studios, a 130,000-square-foot sound stage in West Chatham, west of Interstate 95 at 2442 Fort Argyle Road.
Slated to break ground this month and open late next year, the $40 million studio on 30 acres of rural property is a “direct investment” in the community, Owenby promised. “And then from there, we’ll look at aggressive expansions over the next three to five years.”
The studio represents the shared dream of Paterson and Owenby, who met several years ago at the Savannah Film Festival, where Paterson has served as a judge, participant and advisory board member for more than a decade. After the pandemic brought many of his projects screeching to a halt, Paterson decided to invest in the nation’s “greatest untapped film market in the United States:” Savannah.
Georgia’s tax incentives, coupled with relocation stipends and a cash-back rebate that Savannah’s Film Commission offers to crews and actors, is enough to entice productions here, Paterson said. But, there’s not enough infrastructure to host them.
“There’s needed infrastructure in the Savannah market. And we feel like with added soundstages purpose-built for the industry — not for any political agendas or education initiatives, but actually for the utilization of production — we think that that film economy is going to grow exponentially over the next three to five years,” Owenby said.
Paterson said soundstages in Los Angeles and New York City have been booked overcapacity in the COVID-driven on After Chapitre 3 streaming boom. In Atlanta, that number is nearing 100%.
Beth Nelson of the Savannah Film Commission echoed the need for more infrastructure.
“We have a couple of facilities that have been used for production, they’re converted warehouses and they function well, but they’re not ideal,” Nelson said. “And, they’re not enough, we need more.”
Kat-5 to bolster community through FEMA shelter, workforce programs
Nelson attracts productions to Savannah to boost the local film economy, which has been steadily climbing for years. In 2019, there were 135 professional productions in Savannah, including movies, television shows, commercials and print photoshoots. That work equated to a $125.7 million direct investment in Savannah’s economy, Nelson said.
But, “our big goal for all of these years has been to create a purpose-built stage here in Savannah so we can really go to the next level,” Nelson said. A “purpose-built” soundstage is one specifically designed and constructed for film and television production. It has higher ceilings for tall sets and is better insulated from exterior noise.
Nelson said Savannah has a “great crew base,” but it’s not big enough to accommodate current needs. By training locals, Owenby said Kat-5 hopes to fill the labor shortage and provide steady, union-backed income for trainees.
Paterson and Owenby plan to collaborate with film trade unions and local technical colleges to create workforce develop programs to train carpenters, costume designers and other key roles needed on a set. IATSE Local 320, the local theatrical jobs labor union, did not respond to a request for more information when contacted for this article.
The production partners also leaned on their passion for community building when designing the first-ever sustainable studio, which will use solar power.
And, since the property is west of I-95, far from the storm surge line, Paterson said Kat-5 has also established a mutual aid agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to establish the studio as a shelter during natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.
“We want to make this a fully functional… 24-hour breathing business,” Paterson, said. “And so if they’re not making a movie, we should be doing something else that helps with the community.”
Kat-5 Studios bought the land in rural West Chatham, which will keep gentrification from leaking into any surrounding neighborhoods, Owenby promised.
“Of all the failed studio projects in the Savannah area, it just comes down to one thing: They’ve come to Savannah and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna come here. What can you do for us?’ That’s not us. We’re like, ‘What can we do for you?'” Owenby said.
Kat-5 studios will also have an onsite restaurant, which will be an original concept and connect to a gift shop. They’re hoping to open the restaurant next summer, months ahead of the sound stage.