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Studios Vowed to ‘Rethink’ Filming in Georgia if Abortion Ban Was Upheld. Now What?

Photo by: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2022
John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

The major entertainment studios spoke out against Georgia’s “heartbeat” abortion bill in 2019, saying they would “rethink” their production plans in the state if the law ever went into effect.

That moment appears to be approaching fast.

On Monday night, Politico reported that a Supreme Court majority has signed on to a decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion protecting the right to abortion. The Georgia law — which would outlaw abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy — has been on hold pending the outcome of that case. If the leaked draft opinion becomes final, then Georgia’s law would be allowed to take effect.

So far, no entertainment studio has said what it will do if that happens. Warner Bros. Discovery and Sony declined to comment. A Netflix representative could not be reached for comment. A Disney spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The Motion Picture Association also declined to comment.

Georgia is a massive hub for TV and film production, thanks to a state subsidy that reached a record $1.2 billion last year. Several other states — including Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas and Ohio — also have significant film subsidies, and would also outlaw most abortions if Roe is overturned.

Over the last decade, the studios have gotten involved in a series of social issue controversies in conservative states, often spurred by their own employees. Most recently, Disney came out against Florida’s law regarding classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity — which critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” — but only after employees protested.

Georgia passed its heartbeat bill in May 2019, one of a string of states that passed similar laws at the time. In response, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo relocated their film “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” out of Georgia. David Simon and Mark Duplass vowed not to film there, and Jason Bateman, star of the Netflix series “Ozark,” said he would no longer work in the state if the law went into effect.

The studios initially stayed quiet about the law, until Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos broke ranks.

“We have many women working on productions in Georgia, whose rights, along with millions of others, will be severely restricted by this law,” Sarandos told Variety at the time. “It’s why we will work with the ACLU and others to fight it in court. Given the legislation has not yet been implemented, we’ll continue to film there, while also supporting partners and artists who choose not to. Should it ever come into effect, we’d rethink our entire investment in Georgia.”

The other major studios quickly followed with similar statements. AMC Networks — home of the Georgia-based series “The Walking Dead” — said it would “reevaluate our activity in Georgia” if the law went in to effect, while Viacom said it would “assess” whether to continue filming in Georgia.

WarnerMedia — as it was then called — said it would “reconsider.” (The company has since been spun off from parent company AT&T and merged with Discovery.) Sony said it would “consider our future production options.”

NBCUniversal issued a statement that went beyond Georgia, noting that other states had also passed similar bills.

“If any of these laws are upheld, it would strongly impact our decision-making on where we produce our content in the future,” the company said.

Disney’s then-CEO, Bob Iger, said at the time that it would be “very difficult” for the company to keep filming in Georgia if the law went into effect. Disney’s Marvel films and shows are largely shot in Georgia.

“I don’t see how it’s practical for us to continue to shoot there,” he told Reuters. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard. Right now we are watching it very carefully.”

Iger has since stepped down, and it’s unclear if his successor, Bob Chapek, will feel bound by those statements. Chapek has sought to steer a more neutral course on hot-button issues, though his attempt to stay out of the Florida controversy failed amid employee backlash.

In 2019, some filmmakers were unwilling to sign on to a boycott — vowing instead to keep working in Georgia while making contributions to the ACLU and Fair Fight Georgia, the organization founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Abrams has urged companies not to boycott the state, saying it is better to “stay and fight.”

If the studios’ goal is to influence abortion policy in Georgia or elsewhere, the “Don’t Say Gay” episode illustrated some of the limits of corporate power. Far from persuading Gov. Ron DeSantis to back off the so-called Parental Rights in Education bill, Disney’s opposition prompted DeSantis to attack it as a “woke” company and move to strip it of a special tax district in Orlando.

Brent Lang contributed to this report.