NO ONE meant for this to happen: That’s the quiet buzz in Georgia’s film and business communities this week, as more major Hollywood studios threatened to leave the US’s top movie and television production state because of its new abortion ban.
Georgia’s entertainment industry didn’t see it coming. The ban wasn’t expected to clear the legislature — and barely did. Even Brian Kemp, the Republican governor who campaigned in support of the kind of law Georgia enacted, put forward a milder, largely symbolic anti-abortion measure once in office. Abortion foes weren’t having it. The law Kemp finally signed bans most abortions after six weeks — unless the courts intervene before it takes effect in January.
Now Netflix, Disney, WarnerMedia, AMC Networks, NBCUniversal and CBS Corp. and its Showtime subsidiary have all threatened to pull their business from Georgia — which bills itself as Y’allywood — and fear is rippling through the state’s film production industry, now bigger than California’s, according to Film LA.
Last year, a record 455 film and television productions generated an estimated economic impact of $9.5 billion, according to the state department of economic development. The film and TV industry is responsible for more than 92,100 jobs and nearly $4.6 billion in total wages in Georgia, including indirect jobs and wages, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade group.
To Isaac Hayes III, an Atlanta voice actor, record producer and son of the famed soul musician, the threat alone is sobering. “The one that really shocked me was Warner. They’ve been here since the 1980s. I don’t think Brian Kemp really understood what he did.”
The threats have created a large cast of odd bedfellows.
The biggest potential victim of a Hollywood boycott, for instance, is Pinewood Studios Atlanta, with its 18 sound stages and 400-acre backlot south of the city, where a number of Disney’s Marvel blockbusters, including the recent Avengers: Endgame were produced.
Pinewood’s lead owner is Dan Cathy, the chief executive of Chick-fil-A and outspoken social conservative whose Southern Baptist church opposes all abortions. Cathy is also developing a mini-city across the street, with pricey rowhouse-style homes, boutiques, restaurants, and a spa clubhouse. Neither Cathy nor anyone from Pinewood would comment on the potential impact from Hollywood’s threats.
Kemp has also gone silent, after canceling a trip to an annual Georgia Film Day in Los Angeles and touring Pinewood to reassure the industry last month. The tour did not enter the soundstages where people work. “We’re not commenting,” said governor spokesman Cody Hall, in response to a question about the boycott threats.
Meanwhile, the Democrat whom Kemp narrowly trumped in last year’s gubernatorial race, Stacey Abrams, is all over the place. She popped up in April at an Avengers: Endgame screening for film workers and their families, where Kemp — who had yet to sign the abortion bill — was the main speaker. She has now cast herself as the Georgia film industry’s savior and is urging filmmakers to help fight the law in court instead of pulling out. She flies to Hollywood to make her case next week.
Others close to the industry — particularly the black entertainment industry — say Atlanta should declare its independence from Georgia, at least for marketing purposes. “Georgia doesn’t deserve Atlanta,” said Erik Gordon, a marketing consultant who works with African-American entertainers.
Although Georgia has lost some production in protest of the law, no one knows if the bigger threats will materialize, since court challenges could kill the law or keep it at bay for years.
Gordon says the threat is real: “These people will pull out. They’ll leave us with a million square feet of nothing, to make into a skateboard park.”
Jeremiah Bennett, head of local studio Glass Door Entertainment, says the danger is minimal. “All they’re really saying is we’ll watch what happens and see what our investments are in the future,” he said, adding that many in the Georgia film world are now talking about ways to generate more of their own content and become less dependent on Hollywood.
Even with the controversy, several recent projects have been approved for Georgia Tax Credits and are planning to film in the state, said Vanessa Foltyn Roman, attorney at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, which advises the film industry. However, Foltyn Roman said she was curious if films and TV shows still in early stages might look elsewhere “rather than step into a murky situation with Georgia,” she said.
The road closings, yellow crew signs, lights and catering trucks that mark the shooting of a movie have become commonplace in Georgia. The state’s lures include its geography — coasts, mountains, farms and timberland, swamps and cities — and its film labor pool and infrastructure.
That includes Pinewood in Fayetteville, the second-biggest purpose-built production facility in the US, and Atlanta Metro Studios, which houses the country’s largest and second-largest soundstages, based in Union City. Third Rail Studios is based in an old GM plant in Doraville. An empty beverage distribution facility in Norcross is the home of Eagle Rock Studios. EUE/Screen Gems’ 11-stage facility is has become a production site for Netflix. Tyler Perry converted the decommissioned Fort McPherson into film stages that handled shoots for Black Panther.
‘SELL FOR CASH’
Then there’s Georgia’s film tax credit program, considered among the most generous and easy to use in the nation. These tax credits are transferable, meaning Hollywood companies can sell them for cash to businesses that pay taxes in Georgia. It allows them to recoup 20% of their direct spending in the state, with up to 10% more available if they advertise Georgia in the credits at the end of a movie.
The 2008 tax credit helped film industry direct spending grow from $93 million in 2007 to $2.7 billion in the 2018 fiscal year, according to state figures. That translates to as much as $800 million in credits if filmmakers take the full 30%.
Georgia’s abortion law got little attention from the film industry as it moved through the legislature. It initially seemed less threatening. Although Kemp had endorsed its language during the campaign, he backed a different measure at the legislature, which said the state would ban most abortions only if the Roe v. Wade US Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationally was overturned. The measure was a gesture to anti-abortion supporters but didn’t have any near-term legal impact or violate federal law.
House Republicans pushed the so-called heartbeat bill instead and the measure rolled through, with Kemp signing it May 7. Studios beginning with Netflix said they would rethink their investments in Georgia.
The threats sent a chill through film workers, said Callie Moore, a camerawoman working on Starz’ P Valley television series at Tyler Perry Studios. Moore organized a campaign to raise money to fight the law in court. “It’s mostly crew members on the ground, people who have been in Georgia a long time,” she said. “We announced it in the morning safety meeting and everyone was just so excited.” It spread to other shows and other studios and raised $10,000 in 17 days, she said. — Bloomberg