Hollywood Invested Big in Georgia. A New Abortion Law Is Causing Some Tensions.

ATLANTA — In the last decade, Hollywood, lured by hefty tax breaks, has embraced Georgia with fervor, and Georgia has hugged it right back.

From the former stay-at-home mom who now has a steady job as a zombie to the farm boy who was a paid extra on “Stranger Things” and now leads movie tours, to the once sleepy, postcard-perfect town of Senoia, which has served as a giant set for the “The Walking Dead,” so many Georgia workers, property owners and service industries rely on film and television income that the region has adopted a cutesy nickname: “Y’allywood”

But Georgia’s recent passage of a highly restrictive abortion law has turned its once cozy relationship with Tinsel Town into a fraught one, and put Hollywood’s liberal politics on a collision course with its own economic interests in the state.

Some notable actors and directors, including Jason Bateman of “Ozark” and Alyssa Milano of “Insatiable,” both filming in the state for Netflix, have said they will stop working there if the law goes into effect in January. This week, two productions that had been looking at places to shoot in Georgia said they would go elsewhere instead.

But the industry’s response to the law has been far from unified. There have been pledges to boycott Georgia and promises to stay. Most strikingly, there has been near total silence from top studio brass.

The careful treading is not unique to Hollywood. Across corporate America, there has been little reaction to new laws or bills restricting abortion in Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere, a stark contrast with the widespread boycotts and condemnations that have greeted and sometimes led to the softening of laws that restricted gay and transgender rights in various states.

In 2016, Disney and its Marvel affiliate rallied behind a planned boycott after Georgia signed a religious freedom bill, which was criticized as antigay and ultimately vetoed. But on the abortion laws, Disney, Warner Bros., Netflix and other titans of the film industry are not publicly coming down on either side.

Concerns about profits could explain why: Any boycott would cause untold economic damage to their workers in the state, and to their own bottom line. And it could easily alienate the huge swaths of the country where many people oppose abortion.

If nothing else, Hollywood knows its audience. While Americans broadly support gay rights, for example, some studio executives have noted in private conversations that the country is far from united on the issue of abortion. In a CBS News poll this month, two-thirds of respondents said they did not want Roe v. Wade overturned, but at the same time, half either wanted stricter limits on abortion, or a complete ban.

That tracked results of other polls, which also have shown young people to be only slightly more open to abortion rights than older age groups.

“When companies decide to take overt stances, they want to align with young consumers, because that’s their future,” said Mary-Hunter McDonnell, a management professor at Wharton who specializes in corporate social responsibility. “With abortion, there’s more debate and uncertainty within that population about how to feel.”

Some studio executives are privately saying they hope that a lower court strikes down Georgia’s law, which bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or after about six weeks. Such a decision would help defuse the issue, at least until the Supreme Court decides whether to take up the law.

On Tuesday, in what might prove to be either an aberration or a harbinger, the company producing “The Power,” a TV series based on the best-selling novel by Naomi Alderman, confirmed it had abandoned plans to scout Savannah, Ga., as a potential location, in direct response to the new law. Scouting plans were also scotched for the Kristen Wiig film “Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar” for the same reason, according to a person familiar with the production. Ron Howard has said he will keep the production of “Hillbilly Elegy” in the state and donate to the ACLU, but that he would not return in the future should the law go into effect.

But mostly, key players inside Georgia’s film and television business have declined to weigh in. They include the mogul Tyler Perry, whose huge studio complex occupies a former army base; representatives from two other prominent studios in the Atlanta area — Pinewood, used by Marvel films, and EUE/Screen Gems — and AMC, the cable channel behind “The Walking Dead.”

“Our jobs are not going anywhere,” said Mea Tharp, the onetime stay-at-home mother who now is a regular “walker” on the show.

Film industry workers in Atlanta said they had yet to see any hints of work drying up. In an email to its members last week, Local 479 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union representing crew members, said there were no signs of an industrywide pullout from the state, and that the 30 projects underway in Atlanta was on par with previous years. “We see no reason to expect any slowdown as the year progresses,” the union said.

Enticed by a 20 percent state tax credit (and another 10 percent if they use the Georgia Film Commission’s logo in their credits) film and television productions brought Georgia $2.7 billion in revenues in the 2017 fiscal year, according to state figures. An estimated 92,000 jobs are connected to the industry in Georgia, and more top-grossing films were produced here in 2017 than in any other state, according to the most recently available data.

[After Georgia, the language wars of the abortion debate]

Sites across Atlanta have stood in for Oakland, New York, South Korea and Nigeria in the films “Black Panther,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Captain America: Civil War.”

Tourists amplify the boon. “The Walking Dead” has drawn tens of thousands of “walker stalkers,” as its fans are known, to Senoia from all over the world. “It brought the town back to life,” said Stephen Sweet, who grew up in rural Georgia, never imagining he could earn a living as an extra and stand-in; he also leads movie tours in Atlanta along with “The Walking Dead” tours in Senoia, about 30 miles to the south.

At the Georgia Tour Co. shop on Senoia’s Main Street, a pushpin wall map shows visitors from New Zealand, Madagascar, the Philippines, Somalia and Iran. “They just come in and say ‘Walking Dead,’” said Niki Conlan, who works there. The shop is on its third map, having twice run out of space on earlier ones.

Any talks of a boycott have not ruffled the conservatives backing the law. Over the weekend, Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said his party stood firm behind the law, “even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk.” And David O’Steen, the executive director of the anti-abortion group National Right to Life Committee, said in an interview that he doubted that the “good people of Georgia are terribly worried.”

A full boycott, in his opinion, was unlikely to happen, not least because of how much the industry has invested, and saved, working in the state. “They’re there because they can operate more profitably,” he said. “It’s not going to have any impact.”

Even many in the industry who are inclined to oppose the law are opposing any boycott. Some female filmmakers in Georgia have petitioned Hollywood to stay put, while praising the actions of J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Both have pledged to keep their production of “Lovecraft Country” in Georgia and donate earnings to the ACLU and Fair Fight Georgia, which is led by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who became a national liberal icon by nearly defeating Mr. Kemp. In a tweet, Ms. Abrams said that while she respected calls for a boycott, “I do not believe it is the most effective, strategic choice for change.”

Schenley Sargusingh, 34, who works in the set lighting department, took a longer view. By maintaining a large presence in the state, he said, Hollywood had enticed liberal film workers to move to Georgia and helped nudge it toward becoming a battleground state. Mr. Sargusingh, a Washington native, moved to Georgia from North Carolina, and is now bringing his girlfriend and her children down from there too.

Still, the scattered calls for a boycott have unloosed jitters and a measure of resentment in an industry peopled by both locals and transplants. Some wondered what exactly Hollywood types expected: Atlanta may be a liberal-leaning city and paragon of the New South, they said, but it is still in the conservative South. And what if similar abortion bills are passed in whatever tax-incentive state the film industry might move to next?

“Whatever it is they get twisted about, we get held hostage,” said Nick Allin, a Georgia native and 22-year film industry veteran who works as a grip. While he personally opposed the law, he said, “It is kind of hard to have a livelihood and a job and a career you’ve invested in since 1997 held hostage every time you turn around because someone from California doesn’t like a law in your state.”

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting from Los Angeles.




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