Hollywood studios broke their silence last week, threatening to leave Georgia if a controversial new law banning abortions after six weeks goes into effect next year. At risk for the state is some $2.7 billion in direct spending, as well as 92,100 jobs and nearly $4.6 billion in total wages. Opponents of the so-called “heartbeat” bill hope this new outspokenness will sway lawmakers to reconsider their support of the legislation, while others on the ground said they resented outside influence on state politics.
One local politician reminded the studios and streaming giants that his state does not need advice from “the land of Harvey Weinstein,” going directly for the jugular.
“If studios were to all say we’re not returning to Georgia, we’re pulling out, it would be catastrophic economically for the state,” said Amy Steigerwalt, professor of political science at Georgia State University. “A lot of people have moved here for work. A lot of production facilities have been built here. They’re contributing a lot of tax revenue. But at the moment those threats are dependent on this law being implemented.”
Steigerwalt thinks the law, known as HB-481, will be overturned by lower courts before it can go into effect, and, privately, many studio executives agree. They initially planned to remain silent on the move, even after Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law on May 7, and to have the Motion Picture Association of America be the public face of their efforts.
Netflix, however, opted to release its own statement this week suggesting it would reconsider working in the state if the law was enacted, which put pressure on other companies to offer their own comments. Behind closed doors, staffers, as well as actors, filmmakers and showrunners made it clear that they wanted these media companies to take a stand. Netflix had no further comment on its Georgia statement or how it may have influenced its competitors. But the streaming giant will be hearing from anti-abortion groups. A petition from pro-life advocates to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking him to reconsider the company’s position has received 14,000 signatures, according to Zemmie Fleck, executive director of Georgia Right to Life.
Fleck’s advocacy group faults HB-481 for making exceptions for cases of rape and incest and hasn’t endorsed the law, but Georgia Right to Life is upset about Hollywood’s veiled threats that it will cancel productions if new restrictions are imposed on abortions.
“Outside forces who don’t share our values are threatening to damage our economy in the state of Georgia,” said Fleck. “They don’t respect the personhood of pre-born children and they are valuing their money over the children who have yet to be born. If we do not stand against intimidation, we will lose our identity as a state that values life.”
Some opponents of the law praised studios for their measured response. They appreciate the fact that the companies have opted to remain in the state while the law gets challenged in court instead of opting to pull up stakes.
“I understand and appreciate those who have advocated for boycott, but you can’t change the policy if you leave the state,” said Georgia Senator Jen Jordan, a critic of the law. “They’ve taken the right approach. They’re bringing attention to the issue, but they’re also saying this isn’t a good law and it isn’t good policy, but we want to work with you. I hope it gives us ammunition to stop bad legislation.”
It’s unclear if the law’s backers are open to that message. Rep. Ed Setzler, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and author of HB-481, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in an interview last week, he implied he would not yield to pressure from Hollywood.
“You’ll have to forgive me, but Georgia never thought to consult Hollywood for its scientific expertise or its command of constitutional law,” said Setzler. “In fact, before the land of Harvey Weinstein criticizes Georgia for protecting helpless unborn children, it needs to get its own house in order.”
Hollywood studios may be applying the pressure, but the Georgia State House may not be as persuadable as it was under different leadership. Kemp is much more conservative than his predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, who vetoed laws such as religious liberty bills that upset the business community by allowing companies to discriminate against LGBT individuals.
“Kemp’s explanation is I ran on this, it’s one of my major campaign promises, and I’m following through on what I said I was going to do,” said Steigerwalt. “He also has to ensure that his base is strong and that they think he remembered his promises so they turn up for him in 2022.”
Kemp may also need to animate his conservative supporters because he nearly lost the 2018 election, managing to hold off Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams by less than a percentage point. Abrams did not respond to Variety‘s request for comment on the slew of studio statements this week. Kemp’s office had no new comment beyond an early May statement that the governor is committed to retaining production in the state.
Kemp may be a very different governor than Deal, but even as he attempts to shift state politics to the right, he’s overseeing a rapidly changing electorate. Georgia, once seen as a deeply red state, has become more purple. In the most recent election, Democrats in the state made gains in the state House and Senate. Experts say women, particularly suburban women, shifted to the Democrats’ column, a move that could accelerate in the wake of the abortion measure.
“The GOP has peaked in Georgia,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Some of these Democrats are licking their chops at the prospect of taking on the bill’s supporters.”
Matt Donnelly and Gene Maddaus contributed to this report.
(Pictured: Netflix’s “Ozark,” which shoots in Georgia.)