When Republican Brian Kemp edged out Democrat Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race last November, Hollywood liberals were apoplectic. Their immediate impulse was to punish the state, which has become a hub of American filmmaking surpassed only by California and New York. Several big-name entertainers even called for an industry boycott, prompting a flurry of news reports about Tinseltown turning against its new Southern home.
Abrams moved swiftly to quell the rebellion. The former minority leader of the state House of Representatives tweeted that she appreciated “the calls to action” from her celebrity supporters, but stressed that “hard-working Georgians who serve on crews and make a living here are not to blame” for the election’s outcome. Kemp, meanwhile, did his own damage control, telling reporters he was “not worried about what some activists from Hollywood are saying” and reaffirming his support for Georgia’s generous film tax credit -- an incentive Abrams helped craft in the legislature more than a decade ago.
Watching the two leaders present a united front was somewhat jarring in the aftermath of their bitter campaign. But maintaining Georgia’s film incentives is a bipartisan priority in the state. They have “become a third rail in state politics,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently declared, “untouchable by even the fiercest fiscal conservatives.” That’s true despite their extraordinary price tag: Georgia awarded $800 million in tax credits for filmmakers in fiscal year 2017 -- more than any other state.
Now Georgia is facing a new test. After the legislature approved sweeping new abortion restrictions at the end of March, Hollywood mobilized once again, urging Kemp to veto the bill. But the governor has voiced his support for the measure, which would ban abortions after six weeks of gestation, or when a fetal heartbeat is detected. Dozens of celebrities, film industry workers and union members threatened to boycott the state if Kemp signs the bill into law.
The fight over the fetal heartbeat bill likely will not be the last skirmish between the progressive filmmaking industry and the traditionally conservative state. Advocates in Georgia say the state has finally cracked the code on using film tax credits to help create a lasting entertainment industry presence. But others worry that what has seemed like a movie-ready romance may not ultimately have a Hollywood ending.
Georgia’s continuing commitment to generous film tax credits stands in contrast to much of the rest of the country. A report from the National Conference of State Legislatures last year described a broad trend of “states re-evaluating or paring back film incentive programs.” Whereas 44 states offered incentives in 2009, that number was down to 31 in 2018, and “several of these states were imposing stiffer requirements for qualifying expenses and imposing new project and annual program caps.” Louisiana, a film incentives pioneer, enacted a $150 million cap on the amount of credits it distributes annually.
Yet in Georgia, where tax credits have no cap and no sunset and often cover 30 percent of the cost for productions with budgets of at least $500,000, the movie business has been booming. The Los Angeles film office released a report last year showing Georgia was the “top production center” for major films in the country in 2017, producing 15 of the 100 highest-performing theater releases that year. Economic development officials say 455 productions were filmed in the state during fiscal year 2018, with an estimated economic impact of $9.5 billion. The state claims the film industry is responsible for 92,000 Georgia jobs, with almost 30,000 people directly employed making movies and television. Officials say they’re confident Georgia can continue to succeed where other states have failed.
“There are some things Georgia has going for it that another state couldn’t compete with,” says Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of Georgia’s Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office. “We have very diverse locations. New Mexico has a very good tax incentive, but New Mexico pretty much looks like New Mexico. Georgia has mountains and coastline and big cities and small towns -- and an airport that has 26 flights a day to Los Angeles.” All of this helps explain why Thomas feels sure the industry will stick around, even though it has packed up and left some other states that have generous subsidies. (Thomas was interviewed about the tax incentives in early March, before the controversy around the heartbeat bill erupted. She and the other Georgia officials quoted in this story were not referencing or commenting on that legislation or its potential impact on the state.)
The Netflix series Stranger Things is set in 1980s small-town Indiana, but is filmed in locations throughout Georgia. (Netflix)
High-profile critics are skeptical of this success story. They’ve seen claims like Georgia’s before, and the end results haven’t been so rosy. “This is a really inefficient and expensive way to create jobs and generate additional economic activity,” says Joe Bishop-Henchman, executive vice president at the conservative Tax Foundation.
Pat Garofalo, a policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, agrees. “The economic evidence, pretty much across the board, shows that film tax credits aren’t worth it for a city or state.” Garofalo argues that “this isn’t a ‘left versus right’ thing. It’s a ‘political elites versus pointy-headed econ wonks’ thing.”
Georgia’s initial push for filmmaking began in 1973, when Gov. Jimmy Carter established a state film commission after the success of the 1972 movie Deliverance starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds, filmed in the mountains of northeast Georgia. Soon the state was hosting productions like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard (1979). Then came Glory (1989), Forrest Gump (1994) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).
But by the late ’90s, the movie business began gravitating to other states and to Canada, thanks to attractive tax incentives and a favorable currency exchange rate. A particularly crushing blow came when Louisiana lured away the 2004 biopic Ray, about legendary Georgia musician Ray Charles, whose producers had been scouting Georgia locations. That’s when state officials decided to act. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act in 2005, followed by an updated version in 2008. Since then, there’s been an explosion in Georgia-based productions, especially in and around Atlanta, which MovieMaker magazine calls the second-best big city for movie people to live and work in, after Albuquerque, N.M.
Big-name projects shot in and around Atlanta over the past decade include AMC’s The Walking Dead, Netflix’s Stranger Things and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the FX show Atlanta, starring Donald Glover, who has won Emmy Awards for directing and acting in it. The area has also played host to myriad Marvel superhero blockbusters. Credits for the 700-acre Pinewood Atlanta Studios include this year’s Avengers: Endgame as well as last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Georgia’s film scene is now so big that the state is expanding tourism around it -- Atlanta Movie Tours shepherds visitors around various filming locations. (Their slogan: “Hollywood is closer than you think.”)
Several Marvel superhero movies have been filmed in Georgia, including parts of 2018’s Black Panther, which grossed more than $1.3 billion worldwide. (Marvel Studios)
To keep Hollywood close, Georgia is building a permanent moviemaking infrastructure and training a local film workforce. Tyler Perry, among the world’s most successful black filmmakers, owns an Atlanta studio spanning 330 acres, where parts of last year’s most celebrated Marvel offering, Black Panther, were shot. The Georgia Film Academy, begun in 2016, runs programs in colleges and high schools to train students for production jobs such as makeup artists, key grips and gaffers.
“It encourages these companies to make long-term commitments to the state,” says Thomas of the state film office. “We find that 85 percent of the crews, on average, are Georgia hires.” The growth of the movie industry is energizing communities around the state, including some that are hundreds of miles from Atlanta.
The historic district in Savannah sits at the edge of the Savannah River, half an hour’s drive from the Atlantic Ocean. Spanish moss hangs from gnarled oak trees, and tourists meander along cobblestone streets. The gleaming golden dome of city hall stares down a narrow road lined with palm trees at Johnson Square, where a stone memorial stands in honor of the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene.
Yet for all its monuments to the past, this picturesque section of Georgia’s oldest city is helping to cultivate Hollywood’s future. Young filmmakers and television producers enroll at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. The school hosts the annual Savannah Film Festival, where 50,000 attendees flock to screenings at the 1921 Lucas Theatre and the 1946 Trustees Theater, a pair of majestic venues with old-fashioned marquees that glow brightly at night. Next door to the Trustees on Broughton Street, lines of customers stretch out the door at Leopold’s, a century-old ice cream parlor and soda fountain owned by the filmmaker Stratton Leopold. Autographed photos of movie stars hang on the walls next to posters from films Leopold produced -- The Sum of All Fears, Paycheck -- along with vintage Coca-Cola ads.
On a recent Wednesday, dozens of SCAD students were busy working on their own creative projects at Hamilton Hall, the school’s film and sound facility. Andra Reeve-Rabb, dean of the School of Entertainment Arts and a former director of prime-time casting for CBS television in New York, peeked into rehearsal spaces and audio mixing studios to check in on the young artists.
“How’d the rough cut go?” she shouted down a corridor.
“Great!” a pair of cheerful voices assured her.
“Tommy, did you work it out?” she asked a flustered young man as he passed.
“I might be getting called to The Glorias,” he told her.
The Glorias was the latest excitement on campus -- a forthcoming biopic about feminist heroine Gloria Steinem directed by Julie Taymor and starring Academy Award-winner Julianne Moore. The film was nearly finished shooting in Savannah, and at least 73 SCAD students, alumni and faculty members had worked on the movie in some capacity. It was part of a growing trend in recent years -- more big-time productions coming to town, and greater opportunity for SCAD to be part of them. “I don’t have to go to Atlanta,” says actor D. W. Moffett, who chairs the school’s film and television department and appeared on the television show Friday Night Lights. “I shot The Glorias here. I shot an independent feature here with Richard Dreyfuss and Mira Sorvino -- right here in town.” Reeve-Rabb says the abundance of filming is “a radical difference, even in the past three years.”
Hugh “Trip” Tollison sees that difference, too. He’s president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, and he says the state tax credit provisions changed everything. Savannah now offers its own tax credit on top of the state incentive. MovieMaker magazine calls it the best small city for a filmmaker to work in.
With 13,000 students spread across four campuses, the Savannah College of Art and Design has become an important talent pipeline for Georgia’s entertainment industry. (Karan Jain)
But Garofalo of the Center for American Progress remains firmly opposed to film tax credits, in Georgia or anywhere else. “First, by its very nature, movie production is short-term, transient-style stuff,” he says. “So even if you are creating jobs for folks, they’re sort of rent-a-jobs -- a few months here, a few months there. You can never really pull the public support out from under this thing and have it stand on its own.” It leaves the state in a “competitive economic purgatory,” says Garofalo, adding that Georgia’s economic impact numbers should be taken “with a huge grain of salt. Obviously it’s in the interest of both the state and the production companies to really amp up that number.”
Tollison insists, however, that tax credits are simply “the game that’s being played. We’re not going to sit back and not play the game, because those are the cards on the table.”
Thomas, of the state film office, makes the same argument. She also believes Georgia has opened up a substantial lead over every other state in the film subsidy business. “As long as we can keep the tax incentive going as it is, and we stay a welcoming state for business as we have been, I think we’ll absolutely continue,” she told a reporter last year. “I think it would be very hard for another state to catch up with us now.”
The question of “welcoming” is a lingering one. After lawmakers approved the heartbeat abortion bill, actress Alyssa Milano and several local industry employees gathered outside Kemp’s office in the Georgia Capitol to denounce the legislation and to call attention to the number of jobs they said the state would lose if it becomes law. Milano also delivered a letter signed by more than 40 prominent Hollywood celebrities -- including Alec Baldwin, Gabrielle Union, Amy Schumer and Sean Penn -- stating that they “cannot in good conscience continue to recommend our industry remain in Georgia if H.B. 481 becomes law.” The Writers Guilds of America, East and West also wrote a letter condemning the bill.
Meanwhile, a handful of other states stepped in to offer themselves as alternatives. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted that he would be meeting with film industry representatives to “make the case” for shooting in his state instead of “anti-choice states like GA.” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued similar statements urging Hollywood productions to relocate to their states. Outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent a letter, cosigned by Murphy and by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, to the CEO of Sony Pictures, suggesting that Illinois and New Jersey “not only offer the film and television industries diverse, cost-effective, and hospitable places to produce your work, we share your values and commitment to women’s equality.”
Kemp has not taken action on the bill; he has until May 12 to sign or veto it. But abortion is not the only issue. Socially liberal Hollywood professionals are also wary of potential “religious liberty” laws that would allow faith-based groups to fire employees -- or deny services to people -- who violate an organization’s “sincerely held religious belief.” Kemp’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, vetoed one such bill, which was opposed not just by gay rights groups but also major media companies, including Disney, Apple and Time Warner.
The governor has repeatedly said he wants to keep Georgia’s tax credits in place. But if the boycott threats from Hollywood are real, that may not be enough. Keeping the industry may also require conceding to more liberal social policies. It remains to be seen whether that’s something the state wants to do.
*This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Georgia officials quoted in it were interviewed in early March, and were not commenting on the abortion restriction bill or its potential impact on the state.