On May 7, Governor Brian Kemp signed House Bill 481 into law, effectively banning most abortions after six weeks, before most women even know that they are pregnant. The law does not take effect until January 2020, and the ACLU of Georgia and Planned Parenthood Southeast have already vowed to file lawsuits, which could block the measure while it winds through the courts. Nonetheless, Georgia’s $9.5 billion film industry now finds itself anxious and uncertain. Local crew members fear boycotts, several studios have spoken out against the bill, and a few productions have cited the bill as their reason for opting not to film in Georgia. Below, we break down what has happened so far and what comes next for one of the state’s largest industries.
Okay, so who so far has actually pulled out of Georgia?
Only two productions have confirmed they will not to shoot in Georgia due to the abortion law, and neither had actually begun shooting in the state. One was The Power, an Amazon series based on the Naomi Alderman novel that had been scouting filming locations in Savannah. Filming in Georgia would have been poor optics for the show; the dystopian novel about teenage girls who can electrocute those who oppress them was inspired by Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood. “There is no way we would ever bring our money to that state by shooting there,” director Reed Morano, who worked on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale series, told TIME magazine. The other production was a Kristin Wiig film called Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a comedy about two best friends (Wiig and Annie Mumolo) who take a vacation to Florida. In addition, EUE/Screen Gems president Kris Bagwell also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a Netflix film had left his Atlanta studio.
Who says they’ll avoid filming in Georgia?
That list keeps growing. The Wire’s David Simon was one of the first, on May 8, to say that he wouldn’t shoot in Georgia. Christine Vachon of Killer Films (Carol), Mark Duplass (HBO’s Togetherness), Neal Dodson of CounterNarrative (Netflix’s Triple Frontier), and Nina Jacobson of Color Force (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Hunger Games) also vowed to boycott the state. Atlanta-filmed Ozark star Jason Bateman said he would stop filming in Georgia if the law goes into effect, and Ron Howard said he’d keep his film Hillbilly Elegy in the state this year but wouldn’t return if the law stands.
What really caught the attention of industry observers was Netflix’s announcement on May 26, saying that while they’d continue shooting in the state for now, “should [the abortion law] ever come into effect, we’d rethink our entire investment in Georgia.” The streaming company is one of the biggest players in Georgia right now, with Stranger Things, Ozark, Insatiable, and Holidate among the recent credits. The next day, Disney CEO Bob Iger told Reuters that it would be “very difficult” to film in Georgia if the law goes into effect. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard,” he said. “Right now we are watching it very carefully.” Disney owns Marvel Studios, which has given Georgia its biggest blockbuster ever in Avengers: Endgame. On May 30, AMC Networks (The Walking Dead), NBCUniversal, CBS, Showtime, Viacom, Sony, and WarnerMedia (which owns HBO) all released similar statements saying that if the law goes into effect, they’d reconsider plans to film in Georgia. Big studios such as Netflix and Disney drive a lot of economic power, buzz, and clout, all of which help the industry grow—and contribute to those statistics the governor’s office loves to tout, such as earning Georgia the No. 1 spot in the FilmL.A. study in 2016. That ranking is based on how many of the top 100 highest-grossing movies filmed in the state. Georgia slid to the No. 2 spot in 2017. We’d undoubtedly keep sliding further down without the support of the major studios.
Have any celebrities or studios talked about staying in Georgia, rather than boycotting?
J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele announced they’d still film HBO series Lovecraft County here but pledged to donate the episodic fees to the ACLU of Georgia and Fair Fight Georgia. Howard also promised to donate to the ACLU, as did Fear Street producers Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping. Netflix said it would work with the ACLU to fight the law. And actress Frances Fisher, who is currently filming Watchmen and Holidate in Atlanta, said she opposed a boycott and urged people at the #DoBetterGA protest rally on May 25 to donate to grassroots organizations in Georgia. Production designer Hannah Beachler, who won an Oscar for Atlanta-filmed Black Panther, also tweeted on May 12, “Don’t boycott Georgia! Leaving comes from a place of privilege. Stay, donate, help fight with the women and children.” Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has also been vocal about her opposition to boycotting. On June 3, Abrams announced she had accepted an invitation from former CBS chair Nina Tassler to meet with concerned “Hollywood figures” in Los Angeles, according to the AJC.
What about the people who work in the industry here in Georgia? What are they saying?
A Change.org petition launched by local production designer Molly Coffee and several other women in Georgia’s film industry currently has more than 3,200 signatures and urges those in Hollywood not to boycott but rather to continue supporting Georgia workers. A small group of women at the #DoBetterGA rally, all wearing t-shirts with the “We Work Here” slogan featured on the petition, told us they’d prefer people stay in fight in Georgia rather than boycott. “What we need right now is people to be on our side, not just be like, you know what, I’m outta here because it’s too messed up or it’s beyond help,” said Mazzy Solana, a set decoration buyer who has worked in the film industry for a decade. “We don’t want to feel like we’re beyond help. We need all the help we can get right now.”
IATSE Local 479, the labor union that represents many crew members in Georgia’s film industry, released a letter to its members in April trying to calm fears by saying noting that the law would likely get held up in court and that “most responsible persons in the industry and the media, as well as many politicians, recognize that a boycott of Georgia will only adversely affect the thousands of jobs created by the entertainment industry in Georgia.” The union pointed out maintaining the 30 percent tax credit that makes the industry even possible—unlike many other states, it does not have a cap, making it one of the most attractive in the country—is still the most critical issue. On May 24, the union released a statement thanking production companies that “committed to stay and fight,” and said it would work to “produce a political campaign to address the challenges our industry is facing in Georgia.” That campaign is set to be presented to union members on June 23.
Related reading: Hey, Hollywood: Boycotting our state will hurt Georgia women, not help them—a local film industry worker pens an open letter, suggesting another way to fight
Didn’t this whole thing happen two years ago with the “religious liberty” bill? How is this different?
Kind of. On March 28, 2016, then Governor Nathan Deal vetoed House Bill 757, more commonly known as the “religious liberty” bill. Critics warned that the Republican-sponsored bill could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ Georgians, and some of the state’s largest businesses, including Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, opposed the measure. Disney and Marvel Studios, who at the time were shooting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in Atlanta, threatened to stop doing business in the state if the law was enacted. AMC also urged the governor not to sign.
When Deal vetoed the bill, he said in a press conference that Georgia was home to “warm, friendly and loving people” who worked together regardless of race or religion. “That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
Because HB 757 would have gone into effect immediately rather than the nine month waiting period placed on HB 481, the backlash against the “religious liberty” bill was swift. The bill passed on March 16, and Disney released its statement one week later. In contrast, it took Disney 21 days to respond to Kemp’s signing of HB 481. The language was also stronger for the “religious liberty” bill: “ . . . we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law,” according to the AJC, as opposed to Iger saying that Disney is now “watching it very carefully.” And unlike the religious freedom bill, many non-film industry companies have not taken a public stand on the abortion law, with the exception of a May 25 letter opposing the bill that was signed by 90 people, among them, execs from Coca-Cola and Amazon.com.
How is Kemp reacting to all of this?
During his campaign, Kemp stressed that he was committed to upholding the film tax credit. But Kemp also ran on an anti-abortion platform, and as he has reiterated since, he is upholding his campaign promise. Unlike Deal, Kemp doesn’t seem unnerved by potential business backlash, at least not in the filming industry. “I understand that some folks don’t like this new law. I’m fine with that,” he said on May 18 during the Georgia Republican Convention in Savannah, according to the AJC. “We’re elected to do what’s right—and standing up for precious life is always the right thing to do . . . we value and protect innocent life—even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk.” He did postpone an annual trip to L.A. to promote Georgia to the film industry after threats of protests, according to the AJC. He traveled to Pinewood Studios on May 22, seemingly to try to reinforce his commitment to the film industry, and visited the Georgia Film Academy and met with some Pinewood executives, according to 11Alive.
Who would a boycott hurt? Who would it help?
Those advocating a boycott hope that they can send a message to Georgia and other states with their wallets. Georgia’s film industry generated $9.5 billion in economic impact in 2018 and $2.7 billion in direct spending
There is some past success for boycotts—North Carolina’s legislature repealed a section of its infamous “bathroom bill,” which made transgender people use facilities of the genders assigned at birth, after boycotts from important economic supporters such as the NCAA. However, even after the “bathroom” clause was repealed, the bill drew criticism for barring cities from creating their own antidiscrimination ordinances until 2020, causing Netflix in January to move the $60 million production of film series OBX to South Carolina.
An industry boycott could likely play out in the Republican governor’s favor among his base. As Greg Bluestein and Tamar Hallerman wrote in the AJC on May 31, “Kemp won election by wringing out as many votes from conservatives as he could. And many of those voters, especially from rural Georgia, couldn’t care less about Hollywood boycotts.” Despite efforts to prepare a local workforce, Georgia’s film industry by nature still imports crew and actors from blue states such as California and New York. Some of those people lay down roots here in Georgia and subsequently become Georgia residents (and voters). But if those people stop coming here—and if progressive voters working in the industry leave the state—that could mean more Republican votes and support for the governor and his party. That’s the theory at least; not all workers in the film industry—or the people who own businesses who benefit from production spending—are Democrats.
Assuming the law takes effect, a boycott would hurt the thousands who work in the industry, many of whom are native Georgians, and those who work in ancillary businesses that work with the film industry—hotels, food service, transportation, etc. (A 2018 press release from the governor’s office said that the industry is credited for more than 90,000 jobs in Georgia and allowed more than 300 businesses to relocate or expand in the state since 2010.) It would also hurt smaller Georgia towns such as Senoia, Newnan, and Covington, where The Vampire Diaries filmed. The latter is so devoted to its film industry ties that it actually trademarked the phrase “Hollywood of the South.” Tourism has gone up in these areas thanks to fans seeking out filming spots for Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead, and other popular franchises, leading to additional hotel and restaurant dollars.
So what happens now?
The law doesn’t go into effect until January 2020, if a judge doesn’t block it before then. As is the case in some other states that have also recently passed restrictive abortion laws, the goal for these laws is to ultimately work their way to the U.S. Supreme Court and challenge the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling directly. (Alabama Governor Kay Ivey mentioned challenging Roe v. Wade in her statement on the May 15 signing that state’s even more restrictive abortion bill.) Unless it survives all challenges and appeals, abortion will remain legal in Georgia until 20 weeks gestation. And just as the Hollywood studios have adapted a “wait and see” attitude, so will those watching the industry.
Update 6/8/19: This story was updated to reference the May 24 statement from IATSE Local 479.