As the 2019 session of the Legislature slouched into its final hours, a genuine Hollywood actress strode into Gov. Brian Kemp’s office with a letter that she and dozens of other celebrities had signed.
After being politely refused access to the governor, Alyssa Milano, her entourage, and not a few TV cameras followed her out to a staging area, where she read a letter protesting the Legislature’s passage of House Bill 481, the “heartbeat” measure that would ban nearly all abortions in Georgia after six weeks – before most women know they’re pregnant.
She promised a film industry boycott of Georgia should Kemp sign the measure. “We cannot in good conscience continue to recommend that our industry remain in Georgia if HB 481 becomes law,” Milano said, reading from the letter.
She was backed by many men and women who earn their living working film and TV productions in Georgia. But most notable was the absence of any elected Democrat at the event, in a state Capitol that was full of them.
State Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta, greeted Milano, but quickly slipped away. Which left an eavesdropping member of Governor Kemp’s staff as the ranking state official in the area. The Democratic boycott of Milano's boycott call was pointed out to the actress.
“It would probably not sit well with their constituents. I’ve gotten a lot of support privately, but I totally understand that they can’t stand here at the podium and back a $9 billion industry leaving the state,” she said. But it is more complicated than that.
It would be difficult to overstate the anger expressed by Democrats over HB 481. They have promised an instant federal court fight over what they intend to re-brand as a “forced pregnancy” measure. In no uncertain terms, they have threatened to unleash a vengeful 2020 electorate.
“No doubt the women of this state will reclaim their rights — after they have claimed your seats,” state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, told her GOP colleagues during debate over the “heartbeat” bill.
But one thing that no elected Democrat has done yet is endorse a punishing boycott of Georgia’s booming film and TV studios. Which is why any attempt to blackball the new industry over one of the toughest anti-abortion bills in the country is likely to fall flat.
This is actually Milano’s second call for a boycott of the Georgia film industry in the past five months. Last November, in the aftermath of Democrat Stacey Abrams’ defeat in the race for governor, Milano wrote via Twitter: “Is the entertainment industry willing to support the economy of a totally corrupt state that suppresses democracy?”
Abrams quickly shut down the threat. “The hard-working Georgians who serve on crews & make a living here are not to blame. I promise: We will fight - and we will win,” Abrams replied in the same medium.
Abrams has been critical of HB 481, and the failure of Georgia business leaders to weigh in on the issue. “When women start saying, ‘I’m not moving to Georgia because they have this abominable bill stripping women of autonomy and their choices,’ we will see a result,” Abrams said.
But she did not use the “b” word. And there’s a reason for that.
One underappreciated consequence of Georgia’s fresh status as the third-biggest state for film and TV production – a right-to-work state that has been overtly hostile to organized labor, by the way – is a stunning membership increase among unions associated with the entertainment industry.
Top among them is International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 479. These are the people behind the cameras. They lay the cables, raise the lights, keep up with props and costumes, operate the booms.
In 2005, when Georgia first offered tax credits to the film industry, IATSE (pronounced something like “Yahtzee”) Local 479 had 279 members. In 2016, membership stood at 5,026.
It is a largely Democratic constituency in pursuit of careers that carry the promise of a relatively stable, middle-class income. Therefore, the governing board of Local 479 has declared itself neutral when it comes to Republican-backed HB 481.
“I have membership that are in support of that. I have, probably, more membership that is opposed to it,” admitted Michael Akin, business agent for IATSE Local 479. “There are certain people in the entertainment industry who are adamantly opposed to [HB] 481, and they’ve threatened to boycott.
“This local definitely does not support that thought,” Akin said. “We are saying that this is a social, moral decision that each individual needs to make on their own.”
In essence, union members connected to the film industry here are held captive to Republican decision-making in the state Capitol – the result of relationships formed when Georgia first decided to put its name in lights. IATSE lobbyists helped write the 2005 bill that first rewarded film companies for spending money in Georgia, and the 2008 rewrite, too.
The situation is not unprecedented.
In 2018, two Republican incumbents faced re-election to their seats on the state Public Service Commission. Huge construction delays and cost overruns associated with the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, under PSC oversight, appeared to provide fodder for Democratic challengers.
But Democratic calls for shutting down the project were off the table, given that 5,000 IBEW electrical workers were on the site. In fact, the Georgia AFL-CIO endorsed one Republican incumbent, Chuck Eaton.
But back to the film industry. Patrick Millsaps is a producer and CEO of Londonderry, a family of film-related companies. (The film “Finding Noah” is his work.) Millsaps also briefly ran the Republican presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich in 2012.
Millsaps has left politics for what he says is more honest work. He has taken no position on HB 481, but thinks current talk of a film industry boycott of the state is misguided.
“It’s either disrespectful or a lack of understanding of the maturity that Georgia has in the film industry,” Millsaps said. And it would be yet another blow that would fall disproportionately on rural Georgia.
“You generate a tax credit by hiring someone who works in Georgia, or hiring vendors who are here in Georgia,” Millsaps said. “This is real money being spent with mom-and-pop shops and hotels, and it’s creating a tourism industry where nobody would normally go. Our industry is more progressive than Hollywood, because we’re actually spreading the wealth around.”
As well as it’s doing, Millsaps said Georgia is two years or so away from becoming a self-sustaining center for movie-making. It lacks the post-production facilities for editing, dubbing and sound effects. That work is now done elsewhere.
“With a couple more years and a little bit more investment in post-production, which is where we’re lacking,” Georgia could push back against threats of boycotts, Millsaps said.
“We can make full-blown features within the state of Georgia and never leave,” he said. “And people don’t have the misinformed opinion that a letter with 50 actors can say, ‘We’re going to shut your business down.’”
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