Georgia's Filmmakers Fear Consequences of Anti-Gay Bill Becoming Law

Mark Nerys

"I am absolutely certain that it would have a devastating impact on our film industry," state lawmaker Stacey Abrams says of the bill, if signed by Gov. Nathan Deal.

If Gov. Nathan Deal signs the controversial religious liberty bill that major Hollywood studios have decried as a piece of anti-gay legislation, it could handicap the state's burgeoning film industry. But many local filmmakers remain hopeful that given the governor’s pro-business leanings, he will ultimately veto the measure.

In the wake of growing criticism of the bill, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with local filmmakers to assess the economic consequences that could result if the bill becomes law.

"Given the conversations I've had both with industry professionals in the state and in California, I am absolutely certain that it would have a devastating impact on our film industry," says Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, one of the legislators who has pushed for the current film tax incentives.

The entertainment industry has been growing in Georgia, which offers up to 30 percent tax incentives for TV and film productions. From July 1, 2014 to June 20, 2015 there were 248 feature film and television productions in the state, generating an economic impact of $6 billion.

"We are all very nervous," says Georgia producer Linda Burns, V/H/S, adding that she is "cautiously optimistic" that Gov. Deal will veto the bill. The Republican governor has until May 3 to decide whether to sign the bill, which has undergone multiple revisions before arriving on his desk.

"There is no local issue that more people are talking about, that more people are concerned with," says Christopher Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival, that runs from April 1-10, at which the issue is expected to be a large topic of conversation. "To a lot of people it's very embarrassing. Overall the film and TV industry wants an inclusive, fair, welcoming environment and workplace."

The economic gain from the film industry could sustain major damage should Deal sign HB 757, entitled the Free Exercise Protection Act. Disney, Netflix, The Weinstein Company have all threatened to boycott Georgia if the bill is signed and Viacom, Time Warner, Fox, Sony, MGM, CBS, Comcast/NBC Universal and many other studios have spoken out against the bill.

State lawmaker Abrams explains that the first part of HB 757 passed the Georgia House with no problem, as it said clergy of any faith would not be forced to perform religious ceremonies or acts contrary to their faith. In her opinion, the second part of the bill, which allows faith-based organizations to hire or to refuse services if doing so violates their faith, "sanctions discrimination by religious organizations against any person based on that organization's faith."

This means an LGBTQ person could be denied services based on their sexual orientation, even if the organization offering such services receives taxpayer money. "The reason this is so dangerous is in the state of Georgia a number of our charitable organizations are religious organizations that may be the only entities in that community," Abrams explains. 

The lawmaker says that although the bill says it is not permitting "invidious discrimination" prohibited by the law, Georgia state law does not apply any protections to people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The fact that the state would embed in its law authorization for discrimination, runs counter to the film industry's history of pushing back against this type of legislation," Abrams says. 

Producer Linda Burns says she is very fearful of what would happen to Georgia's film industry if the bill passes. "Although I was excited to see all of the different companies say, 'Hey if you don't fix this, we aren't going to come and work here,' at the same time it was also very frightening to me," she explains. 

Atlanta Screenwriters Group co-founder and president Martin Kelley says he was surprised by how much national attention has come to the state since the bill went to the governor's desk. Kelley says that this past week his concerns over the future of Georgia's film industry have drastically increased as "industry heavyweights" voice their opposition. 

"A big part of [Deal's] reign as governor is the expansion of the film business here," says Kelley, adding that he thinks it's likely Deal will veto the bill. Kelley, Burns, Escobar and Abrams all cited Deal's history of being pro-business when discussing whether they think he will sign it.

"His number one goal for years now has been job creation," says Escobar. "I don't see the governor doing something that would damage either his own personal legacy or put Georgia's place and standing in jeopardy." He added that it's not easy to represent a state with people "that couldn't be on more opposite ends of the ideological spectrum."

Deal has until May 3 to sign or veto the bill. "He has to take his time to prove to everyone that he has really considered this and thoughtfully taken everybody's opinion," says Burns, "If he simply vetoed it he would anger a whole lot of people."

Many local film and government organizations THR reached out to declined to comment on pending legislation. Burns explains that there are people in the local film community worried about upsetting the legislators who currently support Georgia's attractive tax incentives but who also support HB 757. "Either side you choose you are going to anger someone who you depend on for your livelihood," says Burns.

Conservatives who supported the religious liberty bill did not realize how far-reaching the economic consequences of the legislation could be, some filmmakers contend. Producer Brian Tolleson predicted the backlash from the beginning.

Tolleson is the head of content and managing partner of BarkBark, an Atlanta-based production company, and a member of Georgia Prospers, a coalition of companies against discrimination in Georgia. Tolleson said he and other opponents of the bill "sounded a very measured, very local alarm" when the bill was first introduced in the House. They were initially encouraged by Deal's comments that he would not allow a bill that legalized discrimination.

"We didn't want the larger [film] industry to know that Georgia is even considering bringing segregation back to the south," says Tolleson, "We intentionally kept it a local conversation, but when it moved through the House a second time and went to the governor's desk we couldn't contain our view any longer." Tolleson and other opponents began asking their national Hollywood contacts to speak out against the bill.

"This assembly has been pioneering in creating these tax credits and spent billions of taxpayer dollars to build this industry — which is really smart and really forward-thinking and really stimulated the economy beyond anyone's expectations — yet they are about to burn the house down," Tolleson says.

Filmmakers are concerned that even if Deal does veto the bill, there has already been damage to Georgia's reputation. "While none of us ever realistically expect this will go into effect, people in the community regret that this even reflecting on Georgia," Escobar says. "I don't think anybody wants to go backwards."

Burns says that the damage this could have already caused is "intangible," since producers often choose locations far in advance of when they are filming and could decide not to film in Georgia if they assume the bill will pass.

Yet, there is still optimism that the film industry in the state will remain strong if Deal vetoes the bill. "We are scarred, but we have a chance to have this just be a stumble and not a fall," Tolleson says.