Hollywood has returned to St. Marys, years after the coastal Georgia community played supporting roles in some major film and TV productions.
The historic city on the Florida-Georgia border has doubled as The Hamptons in one major film, was seen in a Disney film, and survived filming of part of a Stephen King horror flick.
It’s even been part of Oprah Winfrey’s Lovetown USA TV show.
Now a former church on Industrial Drive, in the defunct St. Marys Airport, is the homebase for the first phase of what is planned to be a 67-acre animation and filmmaking center owned by Pigmental Studios, which has other facilities in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
Pigmental is already handling pre-production work on multiple film and TV projects, as well as a children’s book series, in the renovated offices of the former church. Pigmental CEO and co-founder Marina Martins says St. Marys, a city of fewer than 19,000 residents about a 40-minute drive north of Jacksonville, is the right place to expand, and not just because it has the right look on camera.
“The city was so welcoming, so helpful,” Martins says. “When it comes to filming, having a City Council that really is welcoming and knowledgeable was vital because it is a struggle. As a filmmaker, you go into a town and you know nobody. You are going there because of its visuals maybe, and that’s not enough. It’s just a small part of the overall logistics.”
The Camden County Joint Development Authority helped Pigmental work on its plan for the campus at the former airport, now a business park. The authority’s Executive Director James Coughlin says Pigmental Studios’ arrival feels like “we may have actually arrived,” with major film productions coming to a new part of Georgia.
“We have had some nibbles, some scenes from movies and TV shows and even a commercial or two that have been shot here. But our goal has been to put ourselves somewhere among the Savannahs and even the Brunswicks of the world,” Coughlin says. “When Pigmental Studios found us and discovered our area and decided that they wanted to put down roots here, we felt like, ‘OK, somebody finally gets it, somebody sees what we can do.'”
Georgia has become a major filmmaking center for the nation’s East Coast, with Tyler Perry Studios, Trillith Studios and Turner Studios among major production houses set up in recent years in Atlanta and coastal Georgia, lured by tax incentives that offer rebates on filmmaking expenses.
St. Marys’ Camden County has shown up in part of Dumbo, and the city’s Riverview Hotel was 2019’s Warner Brothers film Doctor Sleep, a sequel to Stephen King’s The Shining. Other film and television projects include Royal Pains on the USA Network series,and Oprah Winfrey’s 2012 series, Lovetown USA, according to the Coastal Georgia Film Alliance.
Pigmental first became aware of the area through developer Jim Jacoby, who is leading the Cumberland Inlet project off Georgia 40 in St. Marys. The multi-use development will include a 160-slip marina, retail and hotel facilities and more on the site of the former Gilman paper mill, which closed more than 20 years ago just over a mile from the historic St. Marys waterfront.
After meeting with Jacoby, Martin came to St. Marys with her architect to look at the airport property and the community around it, and she “fell in love with it,” partly because she believes what Jacoby is building will transform the area with its resort and other amenities. And there are other benefits to the location, she says.
“The geography of the area is a big plus,” she says. “It is so broad and distinct, and varied. You have Cumberland Island for beaches; you have got the hammocks (stands of hardwood trees near wetlands); I could list dozens and dozens of different locations. And really critical, you have a community that is so supportive of the idea of bringing in film. That is vital.”
Also vital for a film studio that shoots live action scenes is having a larger city nearby, in this case Jacksonville and its Film and Television Office‘s ability to source actors and crew. Martin sees an active core of actors and theater groups in the area who “love and understand” what Pigmental wants to do. And don’t forget the “wonderful” weather, she says.
Coughlin says this is the recipe that community leaders have “thought for years would make us more of a destination for these types of productions.”
“They want to find a space that is still in Georgia that will take advantage of that film tax credit,” Coughlin says. “But it has to be close to an interstate, and an airport where people can fly in and out, and it has to be someplace where it is desirable for people in the production industry who want to stay or live, even on a part-time basis. I guess we checked enough of those boxes.”
There is also room to build a studio complex at the defunct St. Marys Airport, closed in early 2017 by the city due to its proximity to secured airspace at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base to the north. Its abandoned runways, empty hangars and office buildings have since been designated the St. Marys Commerce Park, only a mile west of the future Cumberland Inlet project.
The new home of Pigmental’s production office is the former Dawson Community Church at 124 Industrial Drive, with a nearby 9,000-sq.ft. athletic center building set to be renovated into a full film studio that plans to offer an industry training program aimed at area residents and military veterans.
The sanctuary has been renovated into a meeting room and small film studio, with an audio booth for voice tracking and a kitchen. Offices are being prepped for computer animation designers. Pigmental Studios has 11 animated theatrical features and TV series in production, pre-production or development.
One of those is “Here Comes Mavo!,” an animated series for children about a curious deaf girl who lives in a magical land. Being made in partnership with Gallaudet University, it is the first children’s animated series featuring a deaf protagonist, Martin says. And its animated character will use sign language, translated from live actor to animated character using motion capture technology.
“We are going to be doing the motion capture work here, bringing in a motion capture system, and we will be filming it in our 9,000-sqare-foot stage across the street,” Martin says. “It’s an actual basketball court with really high ceilings, so it’s really marvelous. Although we will be doing some of our artwork remotely, which is normal with animation, we will bring in as many people as we can here. We will do our audio here.”
The studio is also home to Pigmental Publishing, which is distributing author Stephen Cosgrove’s Serendipity children’s book series. All 67 of them have sold 60 million-plus, and plans to develop a TV series based on the books are underway too.
The studio is also working on a documentary and a feature film that will be shot locally late this year or early next year.
Martin’s ultimate goal in the next three years is to build a 20-building film campus with 100 to 150 production and filmmaking employees who will create and produce TV and film projects. That would include film stages, an animation studio, an artist facility, community center gardens, and a 17-acre wooded area for nature trails and backlot filming.
The basics for film and TV production are being built already, Martin said.
“I don’t want to wait until we have a marvelous studio with incredible sound stages. That’s a future,” Martin says. “Right now, what I want to build is the infrastructure of people, resources and process so that when a production comes here, they have everything they need. We want to build our reputation as a location where you can film and be supported in your filming and have the crew that you need in order to produce well here.”