Georgia, through a combination of generous tax breaks and an impressive infrastructure, has spent the past 12 years transforming itself into the Hollywood of the South.
The numbers tell the remarkable story of how the state has become a vital outpost for movies and television. The entertainment industry has grown to a $9.5 billion business in Georgia, with 34 major film productions and 33 indies shot in the state in the 2017-18 fiscal year, up from three features and eight indies in fiscal year 2008-09, when the tax incentives for productions were introduced. Now after Joe Biden collected the state’s 16 electoral votes, besting Donald Trump by 12,670 votes and becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Georgia since 1992, the question is, how has the surging entertainment business played a role in the state going blue?
“I do not think it’s possible for the state to have flipped in the last cycle if you don’t highlight the importance of the entertainment industry in the city,” says Ryan Wilson, CEO of the Gathering Spot, a club that has become a focal point for progressive politics in Atlanta. But Wilson argues that the key factor is the local hip-hop community, rather than an influx of Hollywood transplants.
“The thing about Atlanta that is special, whether you’re talking about Killer Mike or T.I.; Will Packer or Tyler Perry; LVRN, Dreamville or Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland, they all have really strong Atlanta ties that are authentic,” he says. “I don’t think folks experience it as anything other than homegrown or local people talking about Atlanta.”
Fred Hicks, a Democratic consultant, says several industries have contributed to the shift in the state’s political dynamics. “You have music, you have film and you have tech, combined with a lower cost of living than you’d have in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; all of these things have made it a destination city for people who think a little differently than other places in the South,” he says.
Progressives are holding their breath to see if Georgia can complete its leftward lurch in a runoff election that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock are facing an uphill battle against incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
“The entertainment industry will play a key role to delivering Georgia for Democrats or keeping it under Republican control,” Hicks says.
Though production takes place across the state, most of the work is concentrated in Atlanta, with Trillith Studios, Turner, EUE/Screen Gems Studios and Tyler Perry Studios as some of the major job creators in the area. There are also a number of jobs indirectly tied to the entertainment business, in addition to the health care and technology booms in the state, which may also have contributed to Georgia’s growing liberal voting population. And while the city populations have largely voted blue in past elections, it’s the turning of the tide in the suburbs that has garnered attention.
“We have seen changing demographics in our state, particularly in our suburbs and exurban areas,” Audrey Haynes, associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia, explains.
But with the presidential election going for the Democrats while the majority of the state government’s power is held by Republicans, Haynes adds, Georgia is effectively a purple state.
“A state becomes bluer in a lot of different ways; we don’t know exactly what the tipping point was,” she says. “But we are purpling because of a variety of things. Part of that is the fact that you have these new businesses [that] are coming in and it’s keeping younger people in the state. And the movie industry is something that keeps younger people here too.”
Television producer Larissa Michel moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta in 2016 to work as production supervisor on Netflix’s “Ozark.” Michel, who grew up in Louisiana, says going back to the South was a “little bit of a shock to the system,” but she has seen a lot change in the past four years. One example: Michel, who lives in a Republican-leaning suburb, remembers having signs supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign removed from her yard during the 2016 race.
Things were different this time around, Michel says — no lawn signs were stolen (in fact, she’s seen neighbors openly stumping for Biden, as well as Ossoff and Warnock). Watching the tally come in for Georgia in 2020 was still an emotional experience.
“I had a feeling it would turn, but I didn’t realize it would turn as much as it did,” Michel says.
But the breadth of the entertainment industry’s impact on Georgia politics becomes most complicated when it comes to the voter rolls. While some in the industry have relocated to the state permanently and changed their voter registration, others are short-term residents.
Michel was one of the industry professionals who changed her registration once she realized Georgia would be a permanent home. “It was important for me to be able to have my voice heard here,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to be a part of the conversation.”
It’s a conversation that’s incorporating more viewpoints thanks to the migration of talent to the Peach State.
“We’re going to assume for the moment that the average person in the entertainment industry is probably more liberal than the average person in Georgia. They make friends and influence friends,” says Eric Segall, a professor of constitutional law at Georgia State University.
Much of the credit for Georgia’s turn goes to Stacey Abrams, the state’s Democratic nominee for governor in 2018. Segall says the success of her Fair Fight team and other local get-out-the- vote organizers in registering more than 800,000 Georgians is like “a hurricane compared to rain.”
As a rising celebrity herself, Abrams has found ways to use the entertainment industry to spread her message.
“I believe very much in the power of celebrity to cut through the noise of politics,” Abrams said during a recent conversation about her Amazon Prime film “All In: The Fight for Democracy.”
One example of cutting through that noise came when Abrams appeared during the Verzuz streaming battle between Atlanta rappers Gucci Mane and Jeezy on Nov. 19. Kicking off the livestream with her cameo, Abrams encouraged the 1.8 million viewers to affirm their voter registration for the Georgia Senate runoff election on Jan. 5.
Georgia State University political science professor Amy Steigerwalt is among those impressed by Abrams’ strategy. “It came across as an incredibly savvy move to get this message out to people who may know it, but still need to be convinced why it’s important,” Steigerwalt says.