Hollywood, Calif. – Before a room crowded with dozens of Hollywood figures, Stacey Abrams challenged film executives Tuesday to “stay and fight” rather than bolt Georgia because of new abortion restrictions Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law.
The anxious crowd came armed with questions, many pressing the Georgia Democrat on why they should stay in a state pushing values they can’t support. Her answer, she said in an interview, was that leaving the state won’t help further their cause.
“While there is a moral pull to say that leaving or boycotting can have an impact, my argument is there’s a stronger effect by staying and changing the power structure that allowed this bill to pass,” she said.
She also left with a more ominous warning: The film fallout over the House Bill 481 was the “tip of the spear” that could spread to the tech industry and other businesses if Georgia doesn’t respond aggressively.
“I was in a meeting with business people making choices about jobs, how to grow an economy, how to invest their dollars and treat employees. They are a canary in the coal mine, saying it’s hard for them to do that,” said Abrams.
“My mission is to say, give us a few more years and see if we can do it right before you leave.”
The meeting was arranged weeks after Kemp postponed an annual state trip to Hollywood to court studio executives upset about his support of the “heartbeat” law, which outlaws most abortions as soon as six weeks.
Kemp, meanwhile, has said the law preserves the sanctity of life and upholds a campaign vow to sign the nation’s “toughest” abortion restrictions. And he told Republican activists in Savannah last month he would defend the law “even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk.”
The industry has exploded in Georgia with the help of the lucrative film tax incentives, and direct film spending in the state grew to $2.7 billion last year. More than 450 movie and TV projects were shot in Georgia, supporting roughly 92,000 jobs.
The film business has been on edge, though, since Kemp signed the new abortion restrictions into law. Some prominent Hollywood figures have said they will no longer work in Georgia, and several major studios have said they could leave the state if the legislation is enforced.
Their threats give them room to maneuver since the law will face a certain legal challenge before it takes effect in January, and even conservative supporters expect it to be blocked by the courts.
Tuesday’s private session was a visceral reminder of the fallout. Organized with the help of former CBS chairwoman Nina Tassler, the audience was a cross-section of the industry: Executives, producers and actors, but also lower-level staffers who work behind the scenes.
Abrams said she pushed the crowd to recognize that their window for action is not just a few months but a few years because of the expected legal battle. Next year’s legislative election and the 2022 race for statewide seats, she told them, could upend Georgia’s political dynamic.
“Not everyone agreed, but there was much more agreement when we left than arrived,” she said. “I don’t disparage boycotts. They have their function. But this is a situation where the political realities are that a boycott won’t have the intended effect.”
‘The only voice’
Indeed, the divide is already shaping Georgia’s 2020 races – and has drawn criticism from most Democratic White House hopefuls. It’s also sharpened the feud between Kemp and Abrams, opponents in last year’s gubernatorial election who could be poised for a 2022 rematch.
Kemp has promised to preserve the tax incentives and said he will fight for “hardworking” film business. But he delayed a visit to Los Angeles in May amid threats of protests and no-shows. Instead, he conducted a closed-door tour of the state-financed Georgia Film Academy.
“I understand that some folks don’t like this new law. I’m fine with that,” Kemp said. “We’re elected to do what’s right – and standing up for precious life is always the right thing to do.”
Abrams, meanwhile, said she’s been forced to step into the vacuum and speak with every major studio because “they are not hearing from anyone” in the governor’s administration.
“I would prefer it if our elected leader did his job and had these conversations and took the hits if he has to. But the absence of engagement puts all of us at risk,” she said. “Those who are upset that I’m speaking aloud should call the question: Why am I the only voice?”
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