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Georgia Filming Subsidy Makes It Hard to Boycott Over Abortion

Georgia Gov Brian Kemp Pinewood Studios
Courtesy of Office of the Governor

The entertainment studios made a lot of noise threatening to boycott Georgia in 2019, after the state passed a bill outlawing abortion after six weeks.

But now that the law is on the verge of going into effect, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the studios have gone quiet. Most of them have said they will pay for workers to travel out of state to get an abortion, but none has threatened to stop production.

As abortion bans start to become enforced across the South and Midwest, companies appear to be wary of getting involved in a losing battle. For Hollywood in particular, Georgia’s $1.2 billion tax credit for film and TV production may be too good to pass up.

“The subsidies to filming in Georgia are so great,” said J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University. “I think it’s going to be very hard for movie companies to turn down filming in Georgia no matter what the political ramifications are.”

In the Atlanta film community, however, there is still concern that a boycott could develop once the so-called “heartbeat bill” becomes law. The state’s film industry has boomed over the last decade, but has faced a series of boycott threats over legislation restricting LGBTQ rights, voting rights, and abortion rights.

“The feeling here is nervousness that our livelihoods could be taken away from us,” said Melissa Simpson, executive director of Film Impact Georgia. “We are no stranger to calls for boycotts. But the thing is, the film industry leaving the state of Georgia will only hurt the most vulnerable in our state. We want the industry to stay here and help.”

In 2019, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a “heartbeat” bill, outlawing abortion after six weeks with limited exceptions for rape and incest. The law has been on hold due to a federal court challenge. But now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, an appeals court is expected to allow it to take effect within days or weeks at most.

Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic challenger, has vowed to work to repeal the law if elected. Meanwhile, Kemp is facing pressure from some conservatives to call a special session to tighten the restrictions. Kemp has praised the ruling and tweeted a photo of himself putting his signature on the “heartbeat” bill, but political scientists say that overturning Roe could bolster Abrams’ campaign and put Kemp, who has tried to portray himself in a pro-business light, in a difficult position.

“Before this came along, Kemp was well-positioned to run the kind of campaign that got Glenn Youngkin elected governor in Virginia,” says Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “But now the legislature could force him to take positions that could alienate the suburban voters he needs and the investment and industry he hopes to attract as governor.”

And even if Kemp has at times struck an adversarial tone with Hollywood, decrying the threats that some filmmakers made to take their business elsewhere after his administration put new voting restrictions into law in 2021, it’s hard for him to justify completely alienating the entertainment business. After all, in fiscal year 2021 the film and television industry was responsible for a record $4 billion in spending on productions that shot in the state.

Georgia has been home to shows including “Ozark” and “The Walking Dead,” as well as numerous Marvel films including “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Some 39 productions are currently underway in the state, including the Netflix adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel “A Man in Full.”

For some in Atlanta, the controversy means they will have to spend time explaining their state’s politics to outsiders. It’s also a reminder that their livelihoods are contingent on outside forces.

“The community is at the whim of others outside the state,” said Ava Davis, an actor and filmmaker based in Atlanta, who said that most of the local industry has developed in the decade since the Great Recession. “There’s always been this fear of what happens when it goes away… I don’t think that fear will ever go away for this generation.”

A boycott might not involve entire studios, but rather individual filmmakers who have the clout to relocate specific projects, as has already happened in a handful of cases. In 2019, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” was relocated out of Georgia due to the abortion bill. Last year, the Will Smith film “Emancipation,” for Apple TV+, left the state due to the new restrictions on voting. But that approach has risks too. More than half the states in the country are expected to ban or curtail access to the procedure, and even abortion rights advocates aren’t sure that steering clear of places with restrictions will ultimately prove helpful to the cause.

“It’s not like this situation is unique to Georgia,” notes Amy Steigerwalt, professor of political science at Georgia State University. “And there are arguments to suggest that pulling out only exacerbates the situation. If you want to change the law, pulling out a bunch of people from a place where they’re registered to vote doesn’t really do much for you.”

Douglas Vaught, a location manager in the southeastern corner of the state, said he did pre-production work on “Emancipation” and was annoyed when it left.

“I was very disappointed — it made me look silly,” he said, adding that he will never work for Apple again. “We stay away from politics… We just want to make movies. If you want to film here, we don’t care about your politics, your race, your creed or your religion.”

For now, studio sources say that the plan is to continue to work in the Peach State and to take a wait and see approach. Almost as soon as Roe was struck down, media companies like Netflix, Disney, and Comcast announced that they will reimburse employees who must travel out of state for abortions. The hope is that position will be enough to provide staff with access to reproductive care without forcing these companies to forgo access to credits that help defray the cost of making movies and shows.

Several other states with abortion bans also have generous filming subsidies, including Louisiana, Texas and Ohio.

Some note privately that Abrams has urged them to stay in Georgia, arguing in meetings and calls with studio chiefs that leaving the state only hurts average citizens who have nothing to do with the new restrictions. In an interview with Variety on Tuesday, Abrams reiterated her position that cameras should keep rolling in Georgia, but with some caveats.

“My very strong belief is that the film industry is vital in the state, and I intend to be a governor who will keep business and keep the entertainment industry here in Georgia,” she said. “But we have to do so with a fervent belief in reproductive rights because of who works in this industry. So, my response to what businesses should do, is that every single business, every single woman needs to do what they feel is best for them.”

Charles Bowen, founder of the Savannah Film Alliance, urged the entertainment industry to find some way to fight back that does not involve exacting an economic toll.

“The vast majority of people in the entertainment industry in Georgia are against what’s happening,” he said. “I would encourage anyone to stay here, donate to the ACLU or abortion rights groups — let’s do everything we can do to fight what’s going on.”

Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.