Hollywood's stance against Georgia isn't as tough as it seems

Updated 5:30 PM ET, Mon June 3, 2019

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Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

Perspectives Bill Carter

Once upon a time, an all-time classic movie, "Gone With the Wind," burned down part of one Hollywood's own studios, pretending it was Atlanta.

Now Hollywood is threatening a repeat, only with the real Atlanta.
How serious a threat this really is will depend ultimately on a contest of principle versus commerce, a battle that is almost always hugely one-sided. Because in "show business," the general rule is: "show" may come first in the title, but the business end is "business."
That's worth remembering as Hollywood continues to threaten to pull production from Georgia to protest the anti-abortion law passed by the state, which starting in 2020 criminalizes abortions after detection of a "fetal heartbeat"—as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
Georgia has come to matter a great deal to the business side of show business because the state has become a haven for film and television production, at times eclipsing even California in terms of feature film production.
In the most recent fiscal year measured, 2017, Hollywood directly spent $2.7 billion on production in the state of Georgia, and the volume has only increased since then. Huge, high-profile movies and TV shows, from "Avengers: Endgame" and "Black Panther" to "Stranger Things" and "The Walking Dead" have been based in the state.
    Money, of course, is the chief reason. (The locations are another reason, because Atlanta provides big-city locations, while the state's varied topography can serve as stand-in for almost any vista, from beach to mountain to primitive raw nature.)
    Georgia wooed Hollywood with massive tax rebates, and production companies can now realize up to a 30% tax credit by shooting in Georgia — not to mention almost everything costs less in Georgia than it does in California or New York.
    Still, with all that factored in, the blowback against the abortion law passed last month has been ferocious in Hollywood, probably the most politically progressive community in American business. The issues raised by the Georgia bill — and seconded by similarly provocative bills passed in state houses of other states -- hit directly at a cause championed by women, a constituency Hollywood has rallied around in a forceful way in recent years.
    First Netflix spoke up, saying it would reconsider its "entire investment" in Georgia. Then an even bigger Hollywood titan, the Disney company, in the voice of its chief executive, Bob Iger, spoke out: "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."
    With those big players going public, others, including WarnerMedia (owner of Warner Studios, as well as HBO, TBS and CNN, among other properties, is based in Atlanta) and Comcast (owners of NBC and Universal) have made similar threats about leaving the state.
    That all plays well with the creative people -- actors, writers, producers -- who are the ones most eager to draw a line in the Georgia clay over this law.
    But so far, the stand Hollywood is taking, while symbolically significant for sure, is more like a soundstage set than a brick-and-mortar structure with a deep foundation. Looks good; but less than meets the eye—and easy to disassemble.
    Every one of the brave studio statements heard in the past couple of weeks has been accompanied by a conditional phrase along the lines of: We'll end our business in Georgia,if this law is enacted.
      It has already been enacted in the sense that a governor signed it into law in Georgia. But everyone—including that governor and the legislature that passed it—expects the law to be challenged, and to be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court. That is actually its intent: see if some especially egregious state law can move that court to weaken further and finally undermine the federal backing for abortion rights.
      The Georgia law as written is like a high-concept pitch for a movie: throw in everything just to get the thing sold, and then see what's left standing after the dust settles.
      The studios can denounce it now safely, without any impact on their bottom lines. A typical statement was issued by AMC, which has threatened to pull "The Walking Dead," which makes millions for Georgia both in production money and as a tourist attraction, out of the state: "If this highly restrictive legislation goes into effect, we will reevaluate our activity in Georgia."
      The powers behind the bill are hardly cowering at these conditional threats. The governor, Brian Kemp, went so far as the mock the opponents as "C-list celebrities," a designation that might surprise producers like Ron Howard and David Simon, stars like Ben Stiller, Alec Baldwin and Kristin Wiig, and executives like Iger and Ted Sarandos of Netflix.
      Kemp can wave his banner of defiance safely as long as the threat for the state to lose billions of dollars is not imminent. Were that threat to become real — as in, Disney unilaterally pulls all production out of the state — it might be the governor's principles that would become subject to business pressures.
      That's what happened to Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona when the NFL insisted it would yank the 2015 Super Bowl out of Phoenix if a law discriminating against the gay community went into effect. Brewer vetoed the bill</