The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia’s abortion bill has some Hollywood filmmakers vowing a boycott. But the studios are standing pat.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a bill outlawing abortion if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat – one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws. (Video: Reuters)

A backlash against Georgia’s new antiabortion law is slowly growing across one of its important industries: filmmaking.

Three independent production companies have announced they won’t do business in the state after the governor signed the “heartbeat” bill, which bans most abortions the moment physicians hear a fetal heartbeat. More than 50 actors have also signed a letter to Georgia legislators saying they will seek to stop production in the state, a popular venue for Hollywood projects, if the law goes into effect.

But the biggest corporate players remain on the sidelines. The movie industry’s Washington-based trade group has said it will hold off on taking action, and no major studios have said they will move any of their productions out of the state.

The controversy stems from Georgia’s Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act, which could ban abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Tuesday signed the bill, considered one of the most restrictive in the country. The law will go into effect on Jan. 1 if it is not overturned by the courts.

The pledged boycott comes from companies run by actor-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, indie-film maverick Christine Vachon and “Wire” writer David Simon. All tweeted this week that they would no longer do business in Georgia.

“Killer Films will no longer consider Georgia as a viable shooting location until this ridiculous law is overturned,” Vachon wrote, citing her New York company.

Simon said, “I can’t ask any female member of any film production with which I am involved to so marginalize themselves or compromise their inalienable authority over their own bodies.”

Mark Duplass tweeted: “Don’t give your business to Georgia. Will you pledge with me not to film anything in Georgia until they reverse this backwards legislation?"

Those moves are likely to have mainly symbolic impact, however. Neither the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry’s trade group, nor any of its member studios have said they will stop shooting in Georgia.

The MPAA has warned of the potential impact in a state that over the past decade has become a hotbed of film productions.

“Film and television production in Georgia supports more than 92,000 jobs and brings significant economic benefits to communities and families,” MPAA spokesman Chris Ortman said in a statement. “It is important to remember that similar legislation has been attempted in other states, and has either been enjoined by the courts or is currently being challenged. The outcome in Georgia will also be determined through the legal process. We will continue to monitor developments.”

The law may not go into effect as written if the courts get involved. But studios often need to make location decisions on top-tier projects a year or more in advance, limiting their ability to wait and see how this controversy plays out.

A little more than a decade ago, the state passed a tax credit that allowed productions to collect a credit of up to 30 percent of its budget, enabling studios to save money or increase their budgets. Those sums are significant, making many studios wary of leaving them behind, even in the face of controversy.

Producers also prefer the state’s generally lower prices compared with California or New York, as well as the geographic diversity: With big cities such as Atlanta and many rural locations, Georgia can double for a variety of settings.

The most recent fiscal year saw additional direct spending of $2.7 billion in Georgia as the industry took advantage of the credit, according to the state’s film commission. Georgia has flourished as Disney, Sony, MTV, Lionsgate and numerous other companies have come calling. The “Hunger Games” movies were shot in Georgia; so was “Black Panther.” “The Walking Dead” and “Stranger Things” TV series shoot there, as well.

Late Friday, J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, who are about to shoot a new show in Georgia, released a statement. They said they would move forward with shooting — relocating a production at the 11th hour is generally difficult — but will make donations out of their own pockets to civil-rights groups.

“In a few weeks we start shooting our new show ‘Lovecraft Country’ and will do so standing shoulder to shoulder with the women of Georgia,” said the pair, referring to their dramatic horror series set amid the segregation of the 1950s South for HBO. “Governor Kemp’s ‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Abortion Law is an unconstitutional effort to further restrict women and their health providers from making private medical decisions on their terms. Make no mistake, this is an attack aimed squarely and purposely at women."

They added, “We stand with Stacey Abrams and the hardworking people of Georgia,” referring to the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, “and will donate 100% of our respective episodic fees for this season to two organizations leading the charge against this draconian law: the ACLU of Georgia and Fair Fight [Action, the Abrams-founded electoral group]. We encourage those who are able to funnel any and all resources to these organizations.”

Actress Alyssa Milano, who is shooting the Netflix series “Insatiable” in Georgia, has been among those outspoken about the legislation. She recently tweeted, “Hollywood! We should stop feeding GA economy,” and she wrote a column on the industry trade site Deadline speaking out against the act.

“Why is HB 481 so alarming for Georgia when it comes to film?” she said, referring to the bill’s official designation. “Each time leaders in the film industry schedule a production, they think very carefully about where we are going to film it. Women are increasingly in these decision-making roles. A lot of factors go into filming decisions, and when multiple options are available, state and local laws become part of the equation. It’s not just about tax laws; it’s about how the government treats its people.”

She added: “Thousands of actors and film crew members converge on Georgia every year, and we hope to continue to do so. But we require a safe working environment with respect, tolerance, and love. All artists, especially women, must feel welcome.”

Milano also wrote a letter to Kemp and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R) in which she and the signees pledged to seek ways for productions to move outside the state if the law goes into effect. Scores of actors signed it, including Gabrielle Union, Mia Farrow, Don Cheadle, Amy Schumer, Patton Oswalt and Sean Penn.

What leverage the actors and creators have, though, remains to be seen. Big-budget decisions are made by A-level producers and studios. That makes the Georgia situation a tricky one. The talent don’t have the power to force productions out of the state. And those with that power have a huge financial incentive to stay in it.

A true groundswell of talent could, in theory, put enough pressure on studio executives to change their minds. But that could yield an unintended consequence. If studios do move productions out of Georgia, the budgets will almost certainly be slashed. That could lead to talent pay cuts. While a number actors would give up money for principle, it’s far from clear all would.

The controversy shows the friction that can develop when Hollywood, which is largely liberal, partners with more-conservative Southern states. The efforts against the antiabortion bill follow mobilizations several years ago against North Carolina over legislation banning the use of restrooms that do not correspond with biological gender.

And a few years ago in Georgia, a proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act was perceived by many as an anti-LGBTQ act. A number of Hollywood figures said they would cut off all professional associations with the state if it was passed. The state’s governor at the time, Nathan Deal (R), later vetoed the bill.

Studios are in a tougher situation this time around because there’s no middle-ground threat option — no chance, in effect, to sway the outcome. Because the controversial bill has already been signed, a strong statement by the studios would likely necessitate they take immediate action.