Will Hollywood abandon Georgia over abortion? Will it move back to L.A. if it does?

by in News

You’ve probably heard that most of the major Hollywood studios, several networks and Netflix lined up this past week to express their concern over the strict new anti-abortion laws getting passed in some states, especially the fetal heartbeat one in top runaway production destination Georgia.

“Given the legislation has not yet been implemented, we’ll continue to film there – while also supporting partners and artists who choose not to,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos stated at the start of the week. “Should it ever come into effect, we’d rethink our entire investment in Georgia.”

A few days later, Disney’s chairman and CEO Robert Iger told Reuters “I rather doubt we will” stay in the Peach State, where such Disney subsidiaries as Marvel Studios have taken advantage of the most generous, uncapped production incentives in the nation to counterbalance the costs of such nine-figure superhero spectaculars as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Black Panther.”

“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,” Iger continued. “Right now we are watching it very carefully.”

“If this highly restrictive legislation goes into effect, we will reevaluate our activity in Georgia,” AMC Networks, which is now shooting the 10th season of its hit series “The Walking Dead” in Atlanta, said in a statement Thursday. “Similar bills – some even more restrictive – have passed in multiple states and have been challenged. This is likely to be a long and complicated fight and we are watching it all very closely.”

Notice similarities shared by these statements and others issued by NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, CBS/Showtime networks, Sony Pictures and more? They all say they’ll be watching how the legal challenges to these laws play out – and keep in mind, the restrictive abortion legislation in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and other states were designed to be long fought over and taken to the Supreme Court, where their bakers hope recently appointed conservative justices will overturn Roe v. Wade.

And none of them actually commit to boycotting Georgia yet.

So, however you may personally feel about the abortion debate, don’t expect it to lead to a sudden windfall of film and TV production returning to California – where the state government’s overwhelming Democratic majority all but guarantees it will remain a haven for pro-choice advocates.

“Realistically, it’s going to take a while for these things to go in place,” observed Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of the L.A.-based research and consulting firm Beacon Economics. “They’re going to get shot down in lower courts and eventually go to the Supreme Court. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out at that point in time, but I think that the announcements here are these guys hedging their bets, right? It’s a way of keeping people in Hollywood happy while they continue to keep their accountants happy.”

Thornberg is referring there to the media executives and corporate communications pros who made the concerned statements about Georgia. Those pronouncements came after some talent, such as Emmy-winning “Handmaid’s Tale” director Reed Morano and comedian Kristen Wiig, pulled their next projects out of Georgia because of its abortion law.

“Well, they really like Georgia’s giveaways,” Thornberg said of the studio suits. “Even though it does very little for Georgia, they sure like the state’s subsidies. So the game they’re trying to play is to keep their stars happy and at the same time to continue the process of collecting those nice subsidies.”

In the 2018 fiscal year, 455 films and TV shows spent $2.7 billion in Georgia. In September of 2018, Beacon issued its “Film and Digital Media Industry Los Angeles County Perspective” report, which noted that direct jobs in those fields grew by 23% between 2011 and 2016, from 215,800 to, around here, outpacing anywhere else in the country. That was partially due to a raise in California’s Film & Television Tax Credit production incentive from $100 million to $330 million annually. That’s far less than the reported $800 million Georgia gave away last year to attract production, but along with the boom in content demand from Netflix and other voracious streaming services, it had the desired effect of bringing all of the local craft unions, vendors and sound stage operators to near capacity employment in the last several years.

Which may be another reason why a production exodus from Georgia back to L.A. should not be expected anytime soon.

“Even if they wanted to bring business back to Southern California, the real question is can they possibly handle the bandwidth?” Thornberg asked rhetorically. “I think that’s the bigger issue.

“I don’t know, it may have a little bit of positive impact on production here,” Thornberg added of any potential retreat from anti-abortion states. “The problem in Southern California is not so much a lack of demand to produce stuff in L.A. The biggest issue is actually a shortage of space. I mean, sound stages are in incredibly short supply in Southern California. If they really want to increase production, increase the number of sound stages.”

Amy Lemisch, who administered the state’s tax credit program during her 15 years as executive director of the California Film Commission, doesn’t foresee a major increase in local production either.

“First of all, the law hasn’t gone into effect,” Lemisch, who left the CFC on May 10, pointed out. “I think everyone is anticipating there are going to be so many court challenges that it might not ever go into effect. So why would a company make a decision on a law that isn’t necessarily actually going to be implemented?”

Lemisch isn’t pessimistic about the area’s ability to handle at least some of the shows that might leave or avoid Georgia, Louisiana and the like, though.

“Yeah, they need sound stages,” she said of productions. “But no one’s going to Georgia for the stages alone. They’re going to Georgia for the 30% (tax credit) on their above-the-line expenditures. But if they didn’t have many stages, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate many productions, for sure. “I was monitoring that over the past two years because I started to get concerned as well,” Lemisch added regarding the local sound stage situation. “And we have seen some growth. I don’t hear ‘I can’t get a stage,’ but I do hear ‘It’s difficult to get a stage’ in some cases. I’ve never heard ‘I can’t shoot in California because there’s no space.’”

Nevertheless, there have been dozens of new production facilities built in the Atlanta area over the past decade and, like everywhere else in the world, they’re being utilized. If talent forces producers to abandon Georgia, they’ll be going everywhere else in the world that has a strong crew base and infrastructure (Hello, Canada).

L.A. simply will not be able to absorb it all. And if the demand for filmed content continues at its current, furious pace, Georgia may not have that much to worry about even if its anti-abortion law goes into effect.

“It’s very possible that (producers) might need the capacity of all the sound stages in Georgia to get their shows done,” Thornberg figured. “Or Vancouver, as the case may be. They don’t want to lose a major facility center, so that’s why they’re hedging, that’s why it’s a ‘Well, let’s just hope that this doesn’t get worse’ kind of thing.”