States Race to Poach Georgia Film and TV Projects Amid Hollywood Boycott Calls
A $9.5 billion industry hangs in the balance ahead of a potentially "crippling" boycott over an abortion law as California, Illinois and New York entice producers to yank the state’s 455 productions for a less hostile environment.
After weeks of silence on Georgia’s new abortion ban, a deluge of Hollywood companies — led by the Reed Hastings-run Netflix and followed by Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, AMC, Sony, CBS and Viacom — said May 30 that they may pull projects from the high-production state if the law isn’t overturned in court before it takes effect in January. If that happens, a source close to Georgia’s department of economic development tells The Hollywood Reporter, the impact of such a mass exodus would be “crippling.” With a $9.5 billion industry on the line, other states are scrambling to find ways to poach Georgia’s lucrative film and television business.
California is taking advantage by attempting to lure existing productions that could be displaced by a Georgia boycott. Gov. Gavin Newsom filmed a video with state assembly member Luz Rivas to deliver a clear message: “This is the moment to come back home.” Rivas is crafting an assembly bill that aims to give additional tax incentives to productions that relocate to California from a state that has pending or existing abortion bans. New York’s Hudson Valley Film Commission, which last year hosted Jim Jarmusch’s Cannes opener The Dead Don’t Die and parts of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, also pitched itself as an alternative, noting its support of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and including a long list of female directors with whom it has worked.
In Illinois, which offers a competitive tax credit, film commissioner Peter Hawley is getting the word out about his state’s recently passed abortion protection law. “We stand in solidarity with the actors, producers and crew who are denouncing these draconian efforts to strip away women’s hard-won constitutional rights,” says Hawley, who started May 1. "The booming Illinois film community extends a warm invitation to productions seeking a home state whose values align with their own." New Mexico’s film office, for its part, has already been receiving calls from productions that had been planning to shoot in Georgia, including Reed Morano’s Amazon drama series The Power.
There would be plenty of film and TV projects to go around should a major boycott ensue. Georgia last year was home to 455 film and television projects that generated $2.7 billion in direct spending and an estimated total economic impact of $9.5 billion. The state handed out north of $800 million in production tax credits in 2017 — more than California ($330 million) and New York ($420 million) combined — making it the most expensive film incentives program in North America. But for TV shows that have roots in Georgia — the most notable is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has settled in the town of Senoia, a half-hour south of Atlanta — relocating would be both troublesome and costly.
Sources in the Georgia film community say that they were initially skeptical about threats of a boycott but that those fears became all the more real after executives at the biggest entertainment companies began releasing statements saying they may “rethink” or “reevaluate” their entire investment in the state, which studio insiders say was the result of increasing pressure from talent. When Disney CEO Robert Iger said it would be “very difficult” to film in Georgia if the law is implemented, he didn’t decry the bill as discriminatory the way his company did in a statement three years ago when the state nearly passed an anti-LGBT law — instead, he cited the many people who work for Disney who won’t feel comfortable working in the state.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — who signed the “heartbeat bill” after only four months in office and mocked the backlash as something that made “C-list celebrities squawk” — has been sending mixed messages to the film community. Sources say he attempted to do damage control in May when he stopped by the Pinewood Atlanta Studios and the Georgia Film Academy to reaffirm his commitment to the state as a home for the entertainment industry, though his visit was said to have been met with skepticism. Gov. Kemp had previously showed support for the industry at Georgia’s Film Day celebration in March, where he raved about the state’s thriving production business. “The key element right now is a full-scale battle royale between business community conservatives and social conservatives,” says Bruce Seaman, an economics professor at Georgia State University.
Despite film program rollbacks in other states like Florida and Michigan in recent years, Georgia has been one of the rare locations to keep its incentives sky-high, as much as 30 percent, and has invested considerably in infrastructure the past 10 years. The state is home to more than a million square feet of soundstage space, with another million of retrofitted soundstage space, an astronomical jump from the 40,000 square feet it had before 2010. According to sources, most of the financing for its major soundstages, including the offshoot of England’s Pinewood, came primarily from partnerships with local investors. Those facilities helped lay the groundwork for Georgia’s 92,000 film and TV jobs, with nearly $4.6 billion in industry-related wages in the state, according to the MPAA.
The friction has weighed on many in the local film community, as they feel they’re at risk of losing work. “There are 100,000 people in Georgia whose jobs are at stake,” says Patrick Millsaps, a Georgia-based film producer and former chief of staff to Newt Gingrich, who adds that the state trains crew that’s 53 percent diverse and 50 percent female. “I’d put those stats up against any crew in Hollywood. We are more diverse and female in an industry that’s had a problem. We also have the only African American-owned studio in America. And Hollywood wants to boycott us.”
When Florida axed its film incentives program four years ago, much of the local crew and talent base moved to Georgia, where they could get work. Many of those same people fear they will have to relocate once again. "You have all these folks here who have built up studios and catering companies and trade businesses that support the industry and they’re now all very nervous about what’s to come," says one on-the-ground source. Insiders add that the stress is getting to employees in Georgia’s film office, too, as they feel they’re caught in the crossfires. One person in the communications department was reassigned away from film office responsibilities amid the frenzy, and others are rumored to be considering resigning. (A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Economic Development denies that the individual’s move is related to any current events and says that it has been in the works for a year as part of a reorganization of the tourism division.)
Prominent Georgians like 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have cautioned against boycotts because of the economic toll they can take on ordinary workers. “There’s been a push by some to boycott for purposes of trying to put economic pressure on the Republicans to change course, but that doesn’t work,” says Georgia state senator Jennifer Jordan, advocating for the approach that J.J. Abrams, Jordan Peele, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have adopted: Shoot in the state, but donate funds to fight the law.
Of course, Hollywood executives are hoping the law is scrapped by the courts after the ACLU files a lawsuit, which sources say might not happen until August. Meanwhile, producer Peter Chernin has sent a mass email to Ari Emanuel, Shonda Rhimes, Jeff Bezos and other show-business moguls asking to help him raise $15 million for the ACLU. Says Jordan, “What works is coming here and being a partner with the folks who are trying to make sure this law never goes into effect.”
A version of this story first appears in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
June 5, 12:45 p.m. Updated to include the Georgia Department of Economic Development's response.