The mock-up of KAT-5 Studios' vision for the sound stage in Savannah, located on their website.

The mock-up of KAT-5 Studios' vision for the sound stage in Savannah, located on their website. / The Current

Credit: Kat 5 Studios

Audrey Gibbs, The Current

Correction: This story has been updated to correct specific points in the lawsuit and to remove photos of land adjacent to the KAT-5 Studios site.

Savannah has long tried to cement itself as a leading place for filmmaking. But the Hostess City is lacking one key element for the industry: soundproofed film studios with large doors and high ceilings, used to construct controlled environments. 

That’s not for a lack of trying. In the past 10 years, at least three developers have promised to build sound stages in Savannah, but so far they have failed to deliver as partners and companies have gotten mired in fraud allegations and other legal trouble. The latest project, a 130,000-square-foot area located on the western edge of Chatham County, in Bloomingdale, now appears to be stalled.

Concept map master plan of KAT-5 Studios from the June 21 property listing of 2442 Fort Argyle Rd.

Concept map master plan of KAT-5 Studios from the June 21 property listing of 2442 Fort Argyle Rd.

Credit: Kat-5 Studios

KAT-5, a company run by two men who met at a SCAD Savannah Film Festival, originally planned to build Savannah’s first purpose-built sustainable film studio complex by 2022. Earlier this summer, the company put two-thirds of the 30-acre plot up for sale for $5 million dollars pitching the space as a place for a grocery store, hotel and other retail.  

David Paterson, one of the co-founders of KAT-5, declined to comment on when the sound stage would be built, or on his company’s marketing documents that outline the original plan and timelines. As of this week, no construction appears underway at the 2442 Fort Argyle Road lot.

Paterson said it was always part of his and his partners’ plan to have other commercial development at the site, and they have decided to prioritize the second investment now. 

Filming in a sound stage can be cheaper and more flexible for production companies, and are abundant in entertainment industry titans like Los Angeles and New York City.

Due to its competitive film tax incentives and unique filming locations, Savannah has seen an increase in numbers of media projects. It even ranked as the third-best small city to be a movie maker in 2022, with projects such as Devotion and The Menu filming in the area.

Trip Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA), said the addition of a sound stage could help Savannah leap into the next level.

“The addition of purpose built sound stages would be an added asset in attracting films and TV series to the Savannah region,” he said. 

Beth Nelson, the previous executive director of the Savannah Regional Film Commission and the Savannah Field Steward for IATSE Local 491, noted, “Over the years we have lost several productions because we did not have space to accommodate the shows.” Nelson continued, “While not ideal, shows have cobbled together infrastructure to accommodate productions due to the value Savannah brings to the project. If we had a turnkey professional sound stage facility in our region, the growth of the film and television industry in Savannah would be phenomenal.”

Soundproofing is essential for productions that are filming audio and video simultaneously. In a studio where outside sound can permeate in, shots may accidentally pick up the sounds of an AC unit inside or sirens outside. The addition of sound stages would attract more productions to Savannah, adding more direct spending within the city and the potential for local job creation, industry professionals agree.

SEDA acknowledges Savannah Film Factory (owned by Broadway Stages) as the official sound stage in Savannah at the time. The building, previously a CitiTrends retail clothing distribution center, was converted into a movie studio space in 2013. The Savannah Film Factory has not responded to requests for comment regarding its facilities. 

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has its own movie studio facilities available for student use and is currently expanding its property. It will be the most comprehensive university film studio complex in the nation, including six sound stages — but is not available to be rented out by outside productions. If a production does have an added element of SCAD student learning opportunities, which is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, productions may be able to take advantage of the facilities by making SCAD their partner in production, according to the SCAD Savannah Film Festival website

Bill Marinella, a Savannah-based casting director, said, “Now we do have warehouses that have been turned into sound stages. But the effect of having like a giant studio has not hit here yet. But I do believe in the next year or so we’ll be having at least one soundstage and when we get one we’ll get two or three more.”

For now, the property owned by KAT-5 promises a significant return on investment for the two founders. They bought the 30 acres for $1.8 million in February 2022. 

The $5 million listing for 20 acres states that they are located “contiguous to a 10.3-acre commercial site earmarked for future development of three sound stages related to movie production.” 

The listing also provides a mock-up of potential land use last updated on April 12. The design includes three sound stages of 14,300 square feet each; a mid-size sound stage is approximately 20,000 square feet. 

It’s unclear what industry needs these current plans meet. According to Film LA’s 2018 Sound Stage Production Report, television series usually require multiple sound stages beyond 15,000 square feet. 

In 2021, Forbes reported that KAT-5 planned for 130,000 square feet of sound stage and production space, but the concept map only accounts for one-third of that space in physical sound stages. 

Meanwhile, KAT-5’s founders — Paterson and Taylor Owenby of ISP Global Capital are currently in a legal battle with Savannah-based commercial real estate development company, Development Associates, Inc. (DAI). DAI is suing Studio Savannah (doing business as KAT-5 Studios). According to the lawsuit, Studio Savannah approached DAI for help with locating, purchasing and developing the project. DAI argues that it invested time, reputation and resources in the project as part of an agreement that the two entities would have an equal ownership split of the project and profits.  

DAI, which has been working in Savannah for 35 years, points to a 2021 term sheet to bolster its claim. KAT-5 claims there was never a valid or enforceable contract. 

Paterson declined to comment on the legal dispute. 

“We’re just looking forward to being a part of the Savannah community,” said Paterson. 


Savannah’s sound stage past

KAT-5’s troubles are the latest in a string of legal battles surrounding movie studio construction around Savannah. 

In 2016, a planned sound stage construction deal in Effingham County fell through and ended with a legal battle. Moon River Studios, also known as Medient, planned to construct a 1,560-acre movie studio complex with multiple sound stages, offices for post-production work and an outdoor concert venue. At the time the facility would have ranked as the nation’s largest movie studio, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle

Moon River/Medient master plan failed as the company was accused of fraud.

Moon River/Medient master plan failed as the company was accused of fraud.

Credit: The Current

In 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission won a $1.8 million lawsuit against Moon River after accusing the company of fraud, falsifying public information and back-dating documents. The company allegedly raised funds from foreign investors in part by promising U.S. Green Cards. The SEC ordered the company to pay back the profits, but the money did not cover former employees and victims who lost their investments. However, Medient defaulted, so there were no assets. 

Meanwhile, in 2022 Arizona-based P3 Ventures was part of a city-approved consortium to develop the old Coastal Empire Fairgrounds at 4801 Meding St. in Savannah. 

The consortium shifted when J. Craig Gordon bowed out of the deal after learning that  a partner in P3 Ventures had been indicted in Arizona in 2021 for allegedly breaking the law in bidding processes to build two schools. 

The P3 Venture Group plan for the former fairgrounds land as outlined on the City of Savannah’s website. Phase 2 includes the movie studio, on the bottom left-hand side.

The P3 Venture Group plan for the former fairgrounds land as outlined on the City of Savannah’s website. Phase 2 includes the movie studio, on the bottom left-hand side.

Credit: The Current

Robert Gould, one of the lead developers and project managers for the P3 Joint Venture Group, confirmed that the development project has continued and is subject to final zoning approval of the City of Savannah and City Council. If approved, the development’s movie studio and sound stage construction is slated to begin construction in 2024. 

“Our focus on the construction of the sound stages is centered in workforce development — creating pipelines to furthering entrepreneurship, creative industry training, as well as local business expansion and retention for the community,” said Gould. 

Critics worry about the ability of the proposed sound stage plan to provide exactly what Savannah is lacking in the film industry. Though the 4 proposed 20,000 square feet sound stages would be helpful, they aren’t adept at handling big projects. Gould says the target productions for these stages include smaller to midsize television series, commercials and smaller scale featured works.

Gould added that he cannot provide an end date to the construction due to development due diligence and zoning challenges. 

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current