Hollywood's Abandonment Issues
Media coverage of Hollywood’s prospective production boycott of Georgia after the passage of HB 481, the so-called “Heartbeat Bill,” has now spanned the globe.
For more than 40 years Georgia has been diligently building a film and television production industry, which sustains the livelihoods of tens of thousands of its citizens. Now this industry is, seemingly, under threat.
At stake is some $9.5 billion in economic impact, fueled largely by the Hollywood film and television community and the jobs of more than 90,000 Georgians working above and below the line. Add to that the multiplier effect of thousands of businesses that benefit from the industry’s presence: hotels, rental properties, transportation services, restaurants and a myriad of retail shops in addition to 600-plus new businesses in the last several years alone. A veritable town has grown up around Pinewood Atlanta Studios.
Also at risk is an emerging generation of industry professionals: students enrolled in college film programs and those taking courses designed to teach marketable, on-set skills.
What It Means in Dollars and Cents
Some of those working in production today told Oz what a boycott would mean to their livelihoods. Set designer Christopher Burkhart moved back to Georgia in 2010 and worked his way up to his present position. “The industry has allowed me to buy a house, and [my wife and I are] expecting our first child in the next few days. I am [now] the sole breadwinner. A boycott would be devastating for my family. And, depending on the length of it, I would have to consider either traveling for work or moving, neither of which are great options with a newborn.”
Set decoration buyer Caitlin Elmes shares similar fears about meeting obligations for a mortgage, student loans and other expenses. “Working in film has become my passion, and I cannot imagine doing anything else for a career,” she says. “If my husband and I were to pick up and leave the state he would be leaving behind a job that he loves with a company that is growing and full of great potential to further his career. Both of us would have to start from scratch in a place neither of us knows. Should we stay, I would have to find a new job and eventually a career path that [permits me to] stay in Georgia. Both scenarios are frankly terrifying to my husband and me.”
"Don't abandon those who need us most."
A talent agency owner, who asked to remain anonymous, worries about keeping her company afloat since “projects have already started pulling out leaving fewer jobs for actors to submit to or even book. My husband and I are paying the office rent out of our personal funds and shuffle the bills around to keep the business going as long as we can.”
Vyvyan Hughes is a project manager and designer at The Neon Company sign makers. “About 65 percent of our work is directly related to the film industry,” she says. “If the industry pulls out, our staff of eight employees would be reduced to four. I will be one of the reductions as most of my job is working directly with the film industry’s art and set decorating departments.”
Locations manager Mac Gordon notes that, “all the work done over the past ten years to build the industry here could be wiped out in less than a year. I saw it happen in Michigan when their tax incentives left. In a few months, that state had one movie after having dozens the summer before. They never came back.” He predicts that “other, more open-minded, states will step in and offer [themselves] as film locations with incentives. And Hollywood will not look back. I rather doubt the state government cares about ‘liberal Hollywood.’ Losing billions, however, might get their attention.”
Responding to a boycott threat, individuals and groups are marshaling their forces to convince Hollywood that they should remain in Georgia. Some in the industry were reluctant to speak to Oz on the record, however. Organizations with 501c3 status are prohibited from making political statements while certain other companies cited the delicate balancing act they are performing as Hollywood weighs its options.
Taking a Political Stand
On the political front two powerful female voices have taken the lead.
Georgia State Senator Jennifer Jordan gained national attention with her powerful dissent to HB 481, which went viral and netted more than 3 million views. While she notes that the law “will be adjoined legally and take two or three years to go through the system,” she told Oz that, “the time to get involved is now. We can’t just say the ACLU is going to save us. They’re going to try. But we need boots on the ground now.”
Acknowledged as a major economic force in Georgia, the film and television industry can become a major political force via proactive, grassroots initiatives. “If you don’t have a place at the table, then you’re on the menu,” Jordan points out. Hollywood needs to support the workers who have served their productions so professionally year in, year out by remaining in Georgia and affecting change from within. “You can’t change policy if you boycott the state,” Jordan declares.
On a June 11th trip to Hollywood former gubernatorial candidate and Georgia legislator Stacey Abrams presented a persuasive case to industry representatives for remaining in Georgia.
“I was contacted because of my longstanding history of working with the film industry,” Abrams told Oz in a phone interview from Hollywood. “I’ve been incredibly vocal about the impact of the forced pregnancy bill; I warned backers about it. And I’ve been crystal clear in my response that while it’s [Hollywood’s] right to boycott, that’s the wrong strategy for change in Georgia.”
Abrams met with “a packed room” of “showrunners, producers, directors, executives and [representatives of] support services.” They gathered to hear “the right strategy” in what was largely a Q&A session, she says. “The group was incredibly engaged, and I was glad to be able to bring forward the concerns of those on the ground in Georgia.” She told the group about the “seismic effect that will ripple across Georgia and stymie progress” if a boycott is enacted. “If you leave instead of fighting you’re open to the charge of abandoning your colleagues to their fate.”
Abrams stated, “We are in a healthcare crisis; this only exacerbates things and makes it more difficult for every woman. If [Hollywood’s] mission is to create spaces that are safe and healthy where women can grow and thrive, they should stay in Georgia. If they stay and fight we will have a real likelihood of success.”
"We are in a healthcare crisis; this only exacerbates things
and makes it more difficult for every woman."
She acknowledges that there’s a risk in “in disparaging those for whom [a boycott] is a moral question,” and that opponents of HB 481 must avoid “a circular firing squad. I think there’s a strategic way to fight this,” she says.
The Grassroots Movement
Many of the “boots on the ground” that Senator Jordan mentioned are worn by women.
Launched by four women working hands-on in the industry, #stayandfightga “grew from a real desire to enact positive change in our community,” says 2nd AC Callie Moore who is joined by grip Peyton Brown, loader, Erin Strickland and camera department digital utility, Chandra Sudtelgte in leading the group.
“We knew that our jobs were at stake after calls for a Hollywood boycott of Georgia had surfaced and that our freedoms, as women, were at major risk as well,” says Moore. “Because of this we joined together to create #stayandfightga, an organization built to be the voice of film industry workers here who want to fight for the rights of women.”
“Stay and Fight Georgia was a plan hatched between a camera-ladies dinner out and a chat around the camera carts,” says Strickland. “We started small with a CrowdRise donation site and a few flyers posted around our stages and handed out to crew members. We announced our fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia at our on-set safety meeting. By the first shot of the day we’d raised over $1,000!”
They have been heartened by the “overwhelmingly positive” reactions to the movement, according to Moore. “We just want to keep the momentum going and keep our message relevant,” says Sudtelgte. “This is only the beginning.”
“We support 100 percent what #stayandfightga is doing and how they are directing their energy in constructive ways,” says film production designer Molly Coffee. She and colleagues Jaime Rosegren, a set dresser, and Sara Riney, a set decoration buyer, were outspoken before HB 481 was signed. Their letter, signed by more than 50 film workers, reached out to such influencers as Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and major studios urging them to take a stand and make a difference if the bill was enacted (only the WGA responded). The women also coordinated with Abrams’s group, Fair Fight Action, and organized a press conference at the Georgia Capitol Building, which was preempted by the appearance of a pro-boycott celebrity who quickly grabbed all the headlines.
“It’s easy for people to say they want Hollywood to leave Georgia, but we wanted to humanize who loses in that situation,” says Coffee.
After the bill was signed, Coffee and her colleagues redoubled their efforts by circulating an anti-boycott petition, currently with more than 4,500 signatures, and reclaiming press attention through direct contact with “anyone willing to talk to us,” including NPR and CNN. “We changed the headlines, and people respected what we were saying.”
She believes that “if Georgia had never gotten Marvel films, if we were only doing normal-size projects, we never would have had this reaction. But the Marvel budgets are so big, and they employ so many that people have realized how competitive Georgia is.” In addition, there is “an element [in Hollywood] that didn’t want to work in Georgia for a long time and is using this as an excuse,” Coffee declares. “When you ask them to take a stand on production in Louisiana [where the governor signed a similar bill], you hear crickets.”
Noting that “we’re playing the long game,” Coffee and her colleagues have created www.georgiafilmtoolkit.com, an information-packed website “made for film workers, to help them talk about the issue.” Events are planned to encourage film workers to maintain a proactive stance and raise funds.
“It’s important that the conversation stays about jobs and economic impact,” she says. “My hope is that people remain engaged three or four months from now when we’re not in the headlines as much. We can’t go back to our lives and have this be a blip on the radar. People need to register to vote and vote in local elections, which do make a difference. Productions need to give workers time off to vote. People need to take ownership of this issue.”
She cites the example of Kelly Rose who has done just that. Rose, who co-owns Studio 48, an audition taping and workshop studio in McDonough, is running for the Georgia State Senate in a bid to flip seats.
Gaining Hollywood Support
Some in Hollywood have expressed their intention to pull current productions from Georgia or boycott the state by moving upcoming projects elsewhere. Others, such as Netflix, Disney, Warner Media and AMC, reportedly are reconsidering working in Georgia. Jason Bateman, producer, director and star in Ozark, has pledged not to work in Georgia or any other state with similar restrictive laws if HB 481 “makes it through the court system,” which seems to buy time for his Georgia-produced show.
Advocates for keeping productions in the state have spoken up as well. Peter Chernin is producing his Fear Street film trilogy and P-Valley series for Starz in Georgia and has donated $1 million to the ACLU and challenged his peers to raise $15 million more.
J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele will continue shooting their Lovecraft Country series for HBO in Georgia and pledge their episode fees to the local ACLU and Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action group.
Currently, The Georgia Film Office’s website states the following productions will be shooting in Georgia this summer; Clint Eastwood and Warner Bros. is set to start production on his latest film, The Ballad of Richard Jewell, about the falsely-accused Olympic bombing suspect. Amazon’s limited series, The Underground Railroad, will shoot in Savannah. Paramount is slated to shoot in July with Eddie Murphy on the much anticipated Coming to America 2.
Academy Award-winning production designer and filmmaker Hannah Beachler, who won accolades for her work on Black Panther, sums it up in a Tweet urging Hollywood not to boycott: “Leaving comes from a place of privilege,” she wrote. “Stay, donate, help fight [with] the women [and] children…Don’t abandon those who need us most.”