Georgia abortion law: Hollywood calls for boycott, but can it leave?

Why We Wrote This

With the film industry’s heavy investment in Georgia, the state’s abortion bill pits Hollywood values against Southern sensibilities. At stake for both sides: moral imperatives and lots and lots of jobs. 

Courtesy of Bryan McBrien
Greensman Bryan McBrien is one of some 92,000 film workers in Georgia whose jobs are in jeopardy as Hollywood studios threaten a boycott over the state’s abortion law.

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Topographically rich and architecturally intriguing, Georgia is Hollywood’s unlikely gem. It has stood in for New York and Pyongyang, and produced hits like “The Hunger Games” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Just over a decade after lawmakers began offering tax credits to movie production companies, the industry has grown by 4,000% into a $9.5 billion juggernaut that employs 92,000 people.  

Now those 92,000 folks are waiting for the curtain to fall. As the actual off-screen Georgia moves toward criminalizing abortion after roughly six weeks gestation, studio heads are questioning their investment in the state. Of course, Republicans challenging abortion rights in Georgia are taking a huge economic gamble – but unplugging the Peach State presents a challenge for Hollywood, too.

Having built Georgia into a giant movie set, Hollywood has to face difficult questions about heavy investment in a region where social conservatism lies deep in the bedrock. Perhaps the biggest challenge now, says Amy Steigerwalt, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, is “that many if not most of those who would be hurt by a boycott are precisely those that the boycott is intended to support.” 

Georgia is constantly on Bryan McBrien’s mind these days, as he wonders how long he can continue to run his business here.

A greensman, Mr. McBrien grows, creates, and delivers backdrop greenery for TV shows and movies. He is one of some 92,000 people working in film and television production in Georgia.

Topographically rich and architecturally intriguing, the state can be – and has been – transformed into almost everything but the high Alps or a Norwegian fjord. It has stood in for New York and Pyongyang. Just over a decade after Republican lawmakers began offering a simple and transferable tax credit to movie production companies, the industry has grown by 4,000% into a $9.5 billion juggernaut. Georgia is the most filmed location in the U.S. and competes with Canada and the U.K. for most box office smashes.

But now, Mr. McBrien, owner of Cinema Greens in East Point, Georgia, is bracing for the curtain to fall.

As the actual off-screen Georgia moves toward criminalizing abortion after roughly six weeks gestation, studio heads like Disney’s Bob Iger are questioning their “entire investment” in the state. And after going “in whole hog” to build a business here, Mr. McBrien’s business plan has already changed. He has built a pop-up truck that will travel festivals to advertise a new retail operation.

“People are terrified” that Hollywood will leave, says the native Michigander. “We want to make sure we have something to fill in the gaps ... if the film industry does get destroyed.”

To be sure, Republicans keen to challenge abortion rights are taking a huge economic gamble. Yet unplugging the Peach State presents a challenge for Hollywood, too.

“Hollywood has to weigh [the abortion law] against the politics of things in an era when the politics of things can sometimes take over,” says film historian Jonathan Kuntz, an expert on the studio system at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, in Los Angeles. “There are a lot of forces pulling on Hollywood, but it’s the dollar bill that pulls them to Georgia. But money is a brittle reason.”

The birth of what some call “Y’allywood” traces back to actor Burt Reynolds’ heyday in the 1970s, when “Smokey and the Bandit” glorified red dirt roads and the Atlanta skyline.

But the kleig lights only flickered dimly the following 30 years. It took the 2008 tax credit to jump-start the industry. Producers can claim up to a 30% tax credit if they tag their work with a Georgia peach label. Easy to use, uncapped, the credits can even be transferred and sold. 

Hollywood took the bait.

The state now sports 200 sound stages that have produced hits like “The Hunger Games,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Both of those last two Marvel blockbusters are owned by Disney, one of the studios mulling a pullout. The actors who play Captain Marvel and the Hulk  – Brie Larson and Mark Ruffalo – are among more than 100 who have signed a pledge not to work in the state if the law takes effect.

Hollywood clashes with Southern sensibilities 

Actor and producer Tyler Perry bought a former Army base, Fort McPherson on Atlanta’s south side, and converted it to studio space. Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Fayetteville is one of the world’s largest. And a producer couple is turning historic Pullman Yard on the city’s east side into a “creative city” for the entertainment industry, complete with lofts, co-working spaces, restaurants, boutique hotels, retail, a concert venue, and more.

“In a sense, the whole state of Georgia could be considered a production facility at this point,” says Matthew Bernstein, a film historian at Emory University in Atlanta, and author of “Screening a Lynching.” “That’s what makes me think [Republican lawmakers] haven’t quite grasped what they are doing.”

On the other hand, he notes, Georgia has seen the clash between Hollywood and local mores before.  

Hollywood values and Southern sensibilities clashed in the Jim Crow era as Atlanta employed censors – stern white women – to police racial codes. The singer Lena Horne was routinely cut for being shown performing on equal footing with white actors.

That impulse to steel Southern hospitality with moral parochialism still shadows the Deep South’s cultural and economic capital.  

“Nobody likes the term sovereignty of states anymore, but really that is where all this lies,” says Zemmie Fleck of Lawrenceville, director of Georgia Right to Life, which has encouraged residents to boycott Netflix for its threat to boycott Georgia. “Yes, you are welcome in Georgia, but please do not ... dictate to us what kind of state we have to be in order for you to be here.”

A purple state with red representation 

Three years ago, former Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious liberty bill under a boycott threat. In hindsight, that was prologue. The election of Gov. Brian Kemp in November pitted a hard-right Republican vowing to impose strict abortion laws to stem some 30,000 annual abortions in the state against Stacey Abrams, a black progressive representing a rising, urban voting bloc.

Having helped to build Georgia into a giant movie set, liberal-leaning Hollywood now has to face difficult – but possibly not unforeseen – questions about heavy investment in a region where social conservatism lies deep in the bedrock. Perhaps the biggest challenge now is that “many if not most of those who would be hurt by a boycott are precisely those that the boycott is intended to support,” says Amy Steigerwalt, a professor of political science at Georgia State University.

Though Governor Kemp says he supports the industry, he noted recently that Georgians won’t let “the land of Harvey Weinstein” dictate terms, a jab at Hollywood’s lip service in support of women’s rights amid storied tales of systemic misogyny and assault.

Ms. Abrams recently met with studio heads in Los Angeles to urge them to stay in Georgia, reflecting a shift in power at the state level where one party now typically dominates. For the first time in more than 100 years, all but one state legislature is dominated by a single party.

“We talk about Georgia being ‘purple’ but it’s really more like a swirl ice cream where the two colors are constantly visible,” says Dr. Steigerwalt. “Each constituency wants to see the politicians they voted for follow through on their promises. The problem is that many of these promises are wildly at odds with what the other side wants.” In that way, she says, “Georgia highlights the tension when you have a ‘purple’ state but few truly purple voters or elected officials.”

Indeed, says Dr. Kuntz at UCLA, “this is why traditionally Hollywood has avoided most controversy, because if you please one group you might disappoint another group. Hollywood wants to please everybody.”

At the same time, he adds: “At this point, it’s not exactly easy for them to pull out.”

Roots run deep

A big reason for that is people like Mr. McBrien. A Los Angeles transplant, he grew Cinema Greens into a 15,000-square-foot facility and a farm. What was once an abandoned factory district is now bustling with box trucks. With a mortgage and a new family, his roots are literally deep.

Also feeding the boom is the “content war” among streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and, soon, Disney and Apple. Georgia has a massive stable of top-end production talent and the proven ability to produce end-to-end big budget films.

For those reasons, some believe the storm will blow over, especially if courts block the law before it takes effect in 2020.

But in the past few weeks, at least two productions have pulled the plug, and several heads of production companies, including David Simon, known for “The Wire” and “Treme,” have said they will no longer film in the state while the law stands. Director Spike Lee has called for an immediate pull-out. The actor Justin Bateman was in Savannah filming an episode of “Ozark,” but has warned he won’t return if the law takes effect. The actor Alyssa Milano, whose Netflix series “Insatiable” is filmed in Georgia, lambasted lawmakers at the statehouse.

Perhaps most critically for an industry that sometimes seems to come and go in the night, its constancy in Georgia has created new economic allegiances and personal friendships. Those individual relationships may represent a demonstrable counterbalance to, as Mr. McBrien put its, a growing tendency of Americans to show “disbelief in others.”

“One thing we’ve been hearing from friends in California is that so many of those people know people like me – set directors, prop makers and greensmen,” says Mr. McBrien. “So now you have these transplanted families, we’ve bought property, and people are starting to have a feeling that if they abandon Georgia they will be abandoning not just a ton of union brothers and coworkers, but they are also abandoning a state that needs their help.”

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