Voting Law Backlash Causing Angst In Ascendant Atlanta Film Industry
Georgia's film industry is as busy as it has ever been, with nearly 50 films and TV shows under production across the state’s nearly 4M SF of soundstages.
But even as local industry players project a veneer of optimism, privately they are expressing fear that their business will take a long-term hit after corporate and Hollywood leaders have roundly criticized the state’s new voting laws, set to take effect this summer, as discriminatory.
“I’m concerned that there's going to be some boycott, that they're going to start pulling some work,” said one Atlanta producer and studio owner, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about a sensitive issue. “This whole thing has put everybody here in a really difficult position.”
Emerging from the depths of the pandemic, Hollywood is hungry for content. Studio space being used today was leased last year, and the pent-up demand has made the market tight all over the country, restricting major studios from being choosy on where they can film.
“Almost all of the stages are completely full, and we've never been busier,” Alison Wentley, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which houses the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, wrote in an email to Bisnow.
But that won’t always be the case. Industry sources tell Bisnow the impact of the law will more likely be felt in the coming years when the next round of productions is scheduled. Spots Films executive producer Scott Knollenberg said studios could see some productions bypass Georgia as soon as the latter half of this year.
“There have been several shows I know that have canceled coming to Georgia. So I know it's affecting the business, which I hate to see,” Atlanta-based director Peter Siaggas said. “This was just a step too far for a lot of them, from what I'm hearing.”
The controversy began earlier this year when Georgia state legislators passed a bill that revises the state's voting laws. Its critics have pointed to a number of provisions as examples of voter suppression, including an ID requirement for mail-in votes, restricting the number of dropboxes to submit votes in an election, reducing the time when voters can request ballots, and banning the handing out of food and beverages to those on voting lines by non-poll workers.
After Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law, the reaction was swift and resounding, with some of Georgia's most stalwart corporate citizens criticizing its passage. Executives at Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and The Home Depot all came out in opposition to the new law. Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from the Atlanta Braves' stadium at Truist Park to Colorado.
“You know, you get to a point where wrong is wrong, and people are like, 'Fuck this!' And they move to New Orleans and shoot there,” said Siaggas, whose companies, Spots Films and Produce It Media, produce commercials and TV shows.
Last week, hundreds of Fortune 500 companies and A-list celebrities signed a letter printed in The New York Times condemning the new law, including content giants like Netflix, Amazon and ViacomCBS, as well as influential film industry figures like George Clooney, Mark Ruffalo, George Lucas, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and J.J. Abrams.
Atlanta film pioneer Tyler Perry had called on the Department of Justice to look into the law that he said is “unconstitutional” and “harkens to the Jim Crow era.” At the same time, Perry fell short of calling for a boycott of filming in the state.
Some others, however, have called for a boycott on filming in the state, including Ford v Ferrari director James Mangold on Twitter and Star Wars star Mark Hamill.
Thus far, only one feature film has officially pulled the plug on shooting in Georgia: Apple Studios' Emancipation — set to star Will Smith, directed by Antoine Fuqua. In a statement, Smith and Fuqua said, “We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access. The new Georgia voting laws are reminiscent of voting impediments that were passed at the end of Reconstruction to prevent many Americans from voting. Regrettably, we feel compelled to move our film production work from Georgia to another state.”
Eric Klein, a freelance location scout based in New York, said he is hearing that Georgia is on the verge of losing more productions but hasn’t seen it come to fruition yet.
“I haven't seen that yet. I don't know if that's going to happen. But I have been hearing rumors of that, though,” said Klein, who is a 25-year veteran in the location scout industry. “I heard rumors that there were at least two jobs that were leaving Atlanta and coming to New York.”
Wentley told Bisnow in an email that no studios have informed Georgia that they were pulling production.
“This is a very typical production cycle, just busier,” Wentley wrote. Film and studio production generated $2.2B in spending last year in Georgia, down from $2.9B in 2019 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic's pause in filming.
Currently being filmed in Georgia are movies such as Warner Bros. Pictures’ Black Adam and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Netflix’s Day Shift, TV series like Doom Patrol, Dynasty, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and AMC’s The Walking Dead, according to Georgia's film office.
Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor against Kemp and has organized voting rights campaigns in the state, has criticized the law but urged businesses and events to continue to come to Georgia.
“My deep concern that is if we call for a boycott, the very people who are helping change the nature of economic opportunity and political opportunity will leave us behind,” Abrams said on a panel earlier this month. “So my message is stay and fight. Come and lift up your voices and join us.”
Director Ryan Coogler wrote in Deadline April 16 that he intends to film Black Panther 2 in Georgia despite his opposition to the new voting law and instead will strive to raise awareness to “help overturn this harmful bill.”
“Having now spoken with voting rights activists in the state, I have come to understand that many of the people employed by my film, including all the local vendors and businesses we engage, are the very people who will bear the brunt of SB202,” Coogler wrote. “For those reasons, I will not be engaging in a boycott of Georgia.”
Cinelease Studios-Three Ring partner Rahim Charania told Bisnow that he is still in negotiations with production companies to lease his Covington studio space next year and that demand is strong.
“Right now, we're negotiating with a number of parties taking over this space at the end of this [year],” Charania said, adding that he expects the studio to be fully booked for 2022 by this summer. “Right now, people are still bidding higher than the rack rate.”
Blackhall Studios, which is in the process of expanding, is booked out for the next two years, CEO Ryan Millsap said.
“Every stage I can think of in Georgia is booked up right now,” Millsap said. “Georgia's the easiest place to make content in the English-speaking world, especially in a Covid world.”
Georgia was one of the first states to allow filming to restart last year in September after industry unions worked out protocols for social distancing and other safety measures. Wentley said the rate of coronavirus incidents in studios has been less than 1% because of the protocols.
This isn't the first time Georgia's conservative state politics have drawn a backlash from the film industry. Two years ago, Georgia legislators passed a bill that banned abortions once a heartbeat was detected, creating an outcry then from Hollywood studios threatening to boycott the state. Ultimately, a federal court ruled the law unconstitutional.
Millsap said he believes the fears that Georgia’s filming business would be boycotted are overblown because of the lucrative tax credit program for film and television production and the infrastructure that studios have put in place in the state.
Georgia's tax incentives have helped it become a major production hub during the past decade, with studios receiving a 20% tax credit for productions of at least $500K and another 10% credit if Georgia's logo is used during the credits.
“Inside the industry, nobody's really talking about [the law],” Millsap said. “You have to remember that the entertainment industry is as diverse as any industry in terms of politics. We happen to be living in a moment in time when the polarization, the ends of the bell curve, get the most voice. But I don't think that necessarily represents the entire industry.”
While Georgia politics bother many Hollywood executives, studios will still flock to the state to produce movies, said Doug Steiner, the chairman of Steiner NYC, a major studio developer in New York, and the founder of Steiner Studios, a 26-acre television and film production complex in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that opened in 2004.
“If there is a really top actor or director or a showrunner, they have the power to decide where something is produced, but that is not a very large field of people,” Steiner said. “I'm pretty cynical. And a boycott would hurt people who you want to help. It would be a short-term hurt for a long-term gain. But I think the studios will not take the chance for moving productions out of the state.”
Steiner said he is against the new voter laws in Georgia. And he said some productions may end up leaving Georgia, especially if a particularly influential or outspoken A-list talent demands it. And while Millsap and other studio owners have dismissed a possible backlash, others are quietly worried
“I would say the impact is going to be negative in the long run,” an Atlanta studio owner told Bisnow on the condition of anonymity. “Long-term, as vacancy increases nationally … the productions are going to have a choice. And as choice becomes more and more available to them, productions will choose where they want to work.”
But even if that happens, the need for new content is so great — and the tax incentives in Georgia so alluring — that some other studio would likely fill the hole left with another production, Steiner said.
“Ultimately, I think an economic boycott will be the only thing to force a change, but I don’t think it will happen,” Steiner told Bisnow. “The studios, I think they think it's a little bit risky to be out front. I think it's a little bit of a political hot potato for them. And it's a bottom-line business. As long as it's cheap for them to produce in Georgia because of the tax credit, they're not going to leave.”