The entertainment industry’s battleground state in the pivotal Nov. 6 midterm elections just might be Georgia.
Celebrities and liberal-leaning industry figures have campaigned hard for big-name candidates like Beto O’Rourke in Texas and countless other Democratic politicians across the nation. But, one key race that could impact studios’ pocketbooks will be who moves into the Atlanta governor’s mansion, which will be vacated by outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, due to term limits.
Democrat Stacey Abrams, the 44-year-old seeking to become the nation’s first African-American woman elected to a governorship, is backed by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ben Affleck, Kevin Bacon and Chris Rock. Her Republican opponent, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is endorsed by President Donald Trump.
So why is Hollywood so invested in what seems to be a typical partisan political skirmish? The race in many ways reflects the influence in the state of the entertainment industry, which, largely driven by Georgia’s 30% production tax credit, now makes up a significant sector of the state’s economy. According to Georgia officials, film and TV production generated about $2.7 billion in direct spending in the 12 months that ended on June 30.
Both candidates support the production incentive — which has made Georgia the U.S. leader in the making of big-budget tentpoles, such as “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Where they differ is on an issue that has triggered alarm bells among the major studios: so-called religious freedom legislation. Such a law would allow individuals or private businesses to engage in behavior considered discriminatory under federal law if such laws violate a person’s religious convictions. For instance, if a baker or florist objects to same-sex marriage, the individual wouldn’t be required to serve a same-sex couple.
When the Georgia legislature passed a religious freedom bill in 2016, studios including Disney and Marvel threatened to boycott the state before Deal vetoed the bill. Deal, a Republican, can’t seek reelection due to term limits.
“If we pass a law in Georgia that legalizes discrimination against the LGBTQ community, our tax incentives will be nonexistent, because no one is going to film in a state that legalizes discrimination,” Abrams told Variety. “If there is any doubt, look at what happened in North Carolina. Look at what happened in Indiana. Look at what is ongoing in Mississippi,” she added, referring to other states that faced an exodus of business over discriminatory laws. “Discrimination is no longer a good business practice. Not that it ever should have been. But we know in 2018 that that is a dangerous road.”
Kemp’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The candidate has said previously that the type of legislation he supports would go no further than the federal “don’t ask, don’t tell” law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. “That does not discriminate. If you believe that discriminates, you need to talk to Congress,” he said at a tourism conference in August, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute’s Center for Regional Economics, said that a threat of a boycott still exists should the religious freedom bill make it to the governor’s desk. “The real question is, how extreme is it?” he said. “If you haven’t seen the language, you don’t know. For Hollywood, the optics are significant, and for Disney, particularly so. Losing Marvel at Pinewood would be a major issue for Georgia filming, if it happened.”
Kris Bagwell, chair of the Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance and executive vice president of EUE Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta, said that both candidates have been very supportive of the industry over the years, and that Hollywood response would be based on the language of any bill. “We agree with Gov. Deal’s position that [religious freedom legislation] is not something that Georgia needs to do,” he said.
The studios so far have largely stayed on the sidelines of the governor’s race, and the MPAA, through its political action committee, has not donated to either candidate. But they certainly are aware of the potential for the issue to flare up again. Abrams has made several treks to Los Angeles to raise money for her campaign, including being feted at a March fundraiser by Hollywood power-lawyer Skip Brittenham and actress Heather Thomas, among others.
“I met with studio heads in part because of it,” Abrams says. “One of the reasons I have been so aggressive about reaching out is that Georgia is the No. 1 place in the United States, outside of L.A., in which to film, and I wanted everyone to understand that they can make long-term plans for filming in Georgia, because as the next governor, I will be the one to protect that investment. I will not let religious freedom legislation pass in the state, and I say this as a woman of faith. I hold very strong religious beliefs, but my faith does not require legislation that allows discrimination.”
The most generous part of Georgia’s film and TV tax incentive is that the state does not cap the amount of credits it gives out, unlike states like New York and California, which limit the amount available to productions each year.
That has allowed Georgia to draw big-budget productions in particular. The state handed out $800 million in tax credits in the 2017 fiscal year. A recent study by FilmLA even put Georgia as the top U.S. production center when it came to share of top 100 movies at the domestic box office.
On the campaign trail, Abrams, the former House Democratic leader in the state legislature, has touted her support for the film and TV tax incentive, going back to 2008, when she voted in favor of a revised program that triggered the production boom.
Republicans have characterized Abrams as one of the most radical liberal Democrats to ever run for governor and have hammered her over the significant amount of her campaign contributions that come from out of state, saying this reinforces their claim that she is out of step with the state’s values.
Abrams counters those attacks by characterizing Kemp as outside the mainstream when it comes to the religious freedom legislation. At a recent Georgia Chamber of Commerce event, she emphasized her differences with Kemp on the bill, which is something that many corporations oppose. The chamber is not making any endorsement in the race.
The entertainment industry is “100,000 jobs per year in the state of Georgia,” Abrams says. “It is multibillion-dollars-a-year of economic activity [pumped] into our state. It creates a range of good paying jobs, from barbers to makeup artists to hairstylists to grips and gaffers and writers and directors. It is incredibly important to our economy, and it is dangerous for anyone who is in leadership in our state to put a vital part of our economy in jeopardy.”
During the Republican primary, Kemp pledged to sign a religious freedom law, which has been a significant factor in winning support among social conservatives. Bizarrely enough, Hollywood even played a role in the primary, as one of Kemp’s Republican opponents, Casey Cagle, announced a boycott of Judd Apatow’s movies after the filmmaker attacked President Trump as a “Nazi.” Kemp also condemned Apatow’s remark.
Kemp now insists that whatever religious freedom law he signs will not drive business away. He told a business group last month that it was necessary to address the issue so that we could “put that behind us and move on.”
Abrams, though, argues that by that measure, Kemp still would be taking the state back to the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned openly gay and lesbian military service and same-sex marriage.
“Those are things that cannot hold in the 21st century in Georgia,” she says.