Hollywood’s Georgia Conundrum: Restrictive Voting Laws Threaten To Turn Peach Of A Location Venue Into Pariah
New Jersey may be the first state to pitch itself as an alternative to Georgia production but won’t be the last amid national furor at the Peach State’s restrictive new voting law. Atlanta’s booming entertainment infrastructure has so many advantages from rebates to infrastructure, yet the state is making itself a liability again less than a year after passing a highly controversial state abortion law (struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional).
The measures include tougher ID rules for absentee ballots, limiting use of drop boxes, giving state election board officials the ability to override local boards and making it a misdemeanor to offer food or water to voters in line. All this in reaction to baseless claims by President Donald Trump that the election was stolen from him — brushing aside the reality that Red states turned Blue because voters were moved to oust a polarizing leader whose response to a global pandemic that has taken over 550,000 U.S. lives was woefully inadequate. And whose final act was to whip a crowd of insurrectionists into a frenzy that led to a storming of the U.S. Capitol and made him the first U.S. President to be twice impeached by the House of Representatives.
Still, Georgia — whose own Republican election officials vocally defended the integrity of the vote there — rushed to pass laws that critics believe make voting more difficult for minorities. Dwyane Wade on the TNT Postgame Show last week eloquently expressed why the law is so objectionable to people of color. Kemp signed it March 26, he noted, flanked by six white men in suits with a painting of a plantation behind them. That snapshot “spoke so many words.”
“When you take away someone’s access, our access, to be able to make sure that people who are standing in line on those hot days … to vote and take away the ability to make sure they have food, and water; when you start taking away portable poll sites … When I look at that, you’re telling me exactly who this law is for,” Wade said.
ViacomCBS, Warner Media parent AT&T and NBC Universal parent Comcast have issued statements of opposition. So have Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, and the CEOs of over 100 other big companies in a joint statement. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo to employees that, “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections.”
Tyler Perry, one of Georgia’s biggest employers of film and TV workers, slammed it as harkening to the Jim Crow era. Director James Mangold tweeted that he won’t direct any more films in Georgia because of the new voting law. Actor Mark Hamill supported him. The WGA has come out in opposition to the law, suggesting the state’s booming film and television industry might suffer if it’s allowed to stand.
A group of 72 Black business leaders took out a full page ad in the New York Times titled Memo to Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency is Now. It calls for corporations to “publicly oppose discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote.” Signatory and former American Express CEO Ken Chenault told CBS This Morning that “all of the words are nice, but we need you to take action.”
The biggest thunderclap so far was Major League Baseball which Friday announced plans to move this summer’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest.
The response? Republicans doubled down and the Georgia House voted to strip Delta of a tax break worth tens of millions of dollars annually. Gov. Kemp slammed MLB, saying the organization “caved to fear, political opportunism, and liberal lies.”
“Georgians — and all Americans — should fully understand what the MLB’s knee-jerk decision means: cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included. If the left doesn’t agree with you, facts and the truth do not matter.” Kemp insists the new law expands access to the ballot box and ensures election integrity.
Former President Trump also chimed in, calling for a boycott of “baseball and all of the woke companies that are interfering with Free and Fair Elections. Are you listening Coke, Delta, and all!”
To Boycott or Not?
Stacey Abrams, the Georgia activist credited with the state’s blue shift last election, has tamped down — for now — talk of boycotting companies and industries that don’t speak out forcefully enough, saying it would only hurt minority communities. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she’s optimistic state lawmakers could revisit the more controversial provisions in the law later this year during an already-planned special session.
So far the entertainment industry is following her lead, issuing condemnations but taking a wait-and-see approach. “As some consider boycotting,” Tyler Perry said, “please remember that we did turn Georgia blue and there is a gubernatorial race on the horizon – that’s the beauty of a democracy.”
But democracy assumes a fair and democratic vote. And it’s starting to seem clear that stubborn conservative lawmakers will not be turned back unless studios show solidarity and make the risk clear: a retreat would damage the state’s economy and employment and undo all that its film industry has worked hard to achieve.
Other Republican-led states including Texas, Arizona and Florida are also prepping new voting laws but none are as crucial to the entertainment ecosystem as Georgia, where booming production rivals Los Angeles and Canada thanks to tax incentives, state-of-the-art facilities and an increasingly skilled workforce. A planned community around Trilith, the former Pinewood Studios outpost, is designed to attract the entertainment industry to put down roots in the state.
Georgia “is a place people like to be in. Atlanta is a modern city. It’s really come into its own,” said one industryite. “But with a staunchly Republican governor and a Republican state legislature they can move through these really conservative bills… It creates more volatility for Georgia as a production location than would otherwise be the case.”
The outcry over the abortion bill in 2019 and into 2020 was massive, from studios, streamers, producers, directors and stars. It banned abortion if there was a “detectable human heartbeat,” which is possible with an ultrasound as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, or before many women realize they’re pregnant. Bob Iger, then Disney CEO, said publicly it would be hard to film in Georgia if the law ever took effect. Netflix expressed the same sentiment, as did WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, AMC Networks, Sony, CBS and Viacom (which hadn’t yet merged). J.J. Abrams, Jordon Peele, Peter Chernin, Alyssa Milano, Christine Vachon, David Simon and others spoke out.
Talent was in a tough position then and could be again. “It’s easy to forget that actors have a harder time than studio executives. They are going on junkets. They are being asked questions all the time. They are under tremendous pressure,” said the industry insider.
Georgia has been offering its 30% tax incentive since 2008. Last August, it streamlined the process of applying film and television tax credits in the state as officials said current rules had been outstripped by the production explosion in the state over the past decade. As production ramped up, sound stage companies and others invested hundreds of millions of dollars to support it.
The website of the Georgia Film Office lists 63 productions currently shooting and there are likely more than that — television pilots, series, reality shows and feature films. Last summer, Gov. Kemp himself said, “major motion picture, television, and streaming companies plan to bring back and hire an estimated 40,000 production workers, who will be employed on an expected 75 production projects that will invest over $2 billion into the Georgia economy during the next eighteen months.”
So his insistence on antagonizing the more liberal crowd that’s adopted his state as a second home is confounding. If Hollywood bails, one expert warns, the ripples will be even wider than imagined since producer tax credits help sustain some of the state’s biggest companies, which are also some of the nation’s biggest employers. Tax credits can only be utilized by companies domiciled in the state where they’re granted. Los Angeles-based companies like Disney, for instance, can’t apply Georgia tax credits because it doesn’t pay taxes in Georgia. Studios sell the credits to buyers from Home Depot to Delta to Coca-Cola which can use them to offset taxes.
“If these content creators leave the state of Georgia this could have a very big impact on not just the Georgia economy but the cumulative economy,” said Zachary Tarica, CEO of Forest Road Company, a company that specializes in film financing and tax credits.
New Jersey On Offer
One state that quickly and publicly raised its hand as a possible alternative is New Jersey, whose Gov. Phil Murphy sent a letter to studios touting its tax incentive of at least 30%, and a so-called ‘diversity bonus’ of an additional 2% for hiring women and minorities in key creative positions and on production crews. That may look attractive given the roots of the current unrest in Georgia as well as new inclusion rules for Best Picture nominations starting in the 2024 Academy Awards.
Launched by Murphy in 2018, the program, however, has been slow getting off the ground and not yet actually disbursed any tax credits to filmmakers. The incentives don’t expire until 2028 and the promise has attracted business, with direct investment by the industry surging to well over half a billion dollars in 2019 from under $70 million two years earlier.
Darryl Isherwood, a spokesman for Gov. Murphy, said the state’s Economic Development Authority “is working on altering the accounting rules in an effort to streamline them and move those movies that have been approved through the process.” The EDA expects that to happen “in the short term.”
Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and a member of the New Jersey Motion Pictures and Television Commission, recalled that Fort Lee is where the movie business started. “New Jersey locations cover the whole era of civilization — beaches, remote wilderness, the New York skyline, casinos,” he said. NJ is the home of Jersey Shore and The Sopranos.
“Urban, suburban, farmland and mountains and skiing and Atlantic City,” agreed chairman of the Commission, Michael Uslan, executive producer of upcoming The Batman — and many Batman projects. (Uslan and his late producing partner Benjamin Melniker bought the movie rights to DC’s Caped Crusader in 1979.)
New Jersey has a highly skilled workforce that lives in-state and supports productions in neighboring New York and Philadelphia but, he said, would prefer to work in their own backyard.
The duo declined to smack Georgia — preferring to stress New Jersey positives and leave tough talk to the governor. “The talent pool in our Tri-State area is so deep, and the industry’s existence in Georgia so artificial, we expect that New Jersey will soon become the major production epicenter on the East Coast,” Murphy said boldly in his missive to studios and producers.
New construction includes Palisade Stages, which opened for business in February in Kearny with 23,000 sq. ft. of studio space, green rooms, loading bays and ample parking. Caven Point Studios in Jersey City opens May with three stages from 19,000 to 26,000 sq. ft. and an additional 70,000 sq. ft. of ancillary space for shops and offices. Supor Studio City in Harrison, a collection of seven buildings, is being converted to studios and ancillary spaces, including a trade school. Other projects, some in conjunction with major anchor tenants, are under consideration for Bayonne, Jersey City, Linden, Newark, Malaga and Atlantic City.
New Jersey’s best-known studio space is the retrofitted Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, renamed the Izod Center, former home of the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets and the New Jersey Devils. It’s being leased year-to-year by NBC Universal — first for The Enemy Within, then Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector; now The Equalizer. “Good news. That one was renewed,” said Gorelick.
ABC shot Emergence in Secaucus for a season in a converted warehouse that Hulu is now using for Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
Murphy also sent a letter in 2019, followed by a round of meetings in LA, after Georgia passed the abortion law. His letter last Thursday noted his own state’s Early Voting law. “We’ve worked for years to ensure that all New Jerseyans have a voice in our democracy, whatever that voice may be. In a time when so many governors and state legislatures are enacting policies that are harmful to their constituents and their states’ reputations … New Jersey has become one of the most economically attractive and socially progressive states in the country.”
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