Actor Kevin Saunders, center, speaks with film buffs in front of the old Norfolk Southern building during an Atlanta Movie Tours trip to filming sights around downtown Atlanta. Saunders showed guests where an array of Hollywood superhero movies and television series were filmed in downtown Atlanta, including the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, the old Norfolk Southern building and Mitchell Street. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

‘Heartbeat’ protests stir debate about impact on Georgia film industry

When directors want to film things that slither or crawl, Jeff Nix is their guy.

He delivered a Madagascar giant hissing cockroach to the set of “Ozark” and scores of smaller roaches for a creepy moment in “Stranger Things.” A scene calls for scorpions, rats, eels or a python? He’s on it.

Little rattles the exotic animal wrangler who’s retired from the Georgia Air National Guard. Including threats to the state’s film industry over the recently signed anti-abortion “heartbeat” law.

“I don’t think anything will change. It’s about following the money, and production has way too much invested in the state of Georgia to go anywhere,” he said. “They care about the issue. But not to the point where they’re going to pull the plug on Georgia. They can’t afford to.”

Others who work in and around the state’s film industry see things quite differently.

“I’m concerned,” said caterer Joy Merle, who’s landed contracts to feed the crews of movies such as “Baby Driver,” “Hidden Figures” and one of the “Fast and Furious” movies. “Georgia’s interests are backward. You can’t expect to bring in progressive industries that are doing things for the people of the state and not acknowledge the shift in culture. You’re putting people’s jobs at risk.”

The law that bans most abortions after physicians can detect a fetal heartbeat has had some entertainers and studio chiefs threatening to quit Georgia if it takes effect on Jan. 1. It’s likely to encounter legal challenges that could tie it up in courts for years, though, and some area district attorneys say they won’t prosecute cases under the law.

» Spike Lee calls for Hollywood to 'shut it down' in Georgia

Still, people who live and work here say they’re already starting to feel a tangible impact. Kris Bagwell, who runs EUE Screen Gems (where “Black Panther” filmed), said he’s lost a project in the aftermath. Realtor Carter Phillips, who helps major films secure locations and high-end housing for A-list talent, had a production decide to shoot elsewhere even after he’d taken scouts to visit several properties.

Atlanta Movie Tours owner Carrie Sagel Burns says customers have been asking about the legislation, and she worries states hoping to lure business away will use the heartbeat law as a cudgel. Already, a California legislator has proposed tax breaks for productions that relocate in response to abortion legislation passed here and elsewhere. Several others states, including Louisiana, another filming destination in recent years, have passed legislation similar to or, in Alabama’s case, stricter than Georgia’s.

“The impact kind of trickles all the way down,” Burns said. “It starts hurting a lot of people.”

For the 12 months ending in June 2018, direct film spending in Georgia totaled $2.7 billion and included 455 movie and TV projects, according to the state Department of Economic Development. The Motion Picture Association of America say the industry supports more than 92,000 direct and indirect jobs in Georgia, and that more than 300 companies have expanded or relocated to serve the film industry here.

The same Republican-leaning Legislature whose support of the heartbeat law has stoked fears in the film industry is the one that boosted its presence here in the first place. Projects that spend $500,000 here can earn up to 30 percent in tax credits, thanks to incentives passed in 2005 and sweetened in 2008. The cost to taxpayers has exceeded $1 billion since 2009, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state tax data and a 2016 Georgia State University study. The industry’s impact to the state’s bottom line is a matter of dispute among some economists.

House Speaker David Ralston, who has vowed as long as he’s in office, “there will be no bigger fan of that tax credit and this industry than I am,” appeared with Gov. Brian Kemp at the Legislature’s 2019 Film Day event in April and says he wants to make permanent a legislative committee devoted to legislation related to film and entertainment.

The following month, Ralston stood by Kemp as the governor signed the abortion bill into law. The legislation sparked vigorous opposition, with protesters in “Handmaid’s Tale” capes crowding the Capitol building and actress and producer Alyssa Milano giving an outraged speech in the Capitol rotunda. The law does have support among some in the industry, though.

Atlanta actress Ashley Bratcher stars in “Unplanned,” which was released the day Georgia legislators approved the heartbeat bill. She said she supported abortion rights before portraying Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned anti-abortion activist. She had a change of heart while filming the movie in Oklahoma when her mother revealed that she had elected to have an abortion while pregnant with Bratcher, then changed her mind at the last moment.

“I was telling Abby Johnson’s story, never knowing I had my own. Within minutes, I could never have existed,” Bratcher said. “We need more compassion. We need to serve women better. We have to stand up and give a voice to the most vulnerable.”

Actress Busy Philipps spoke out just after the bill passed to discuss her own abortion.

“I had an abortion when I was 15 years old, and I’m telling you this because I’m genuinely really scared for women and girls all over the country,” she said during a segment on her talk show that inspired other actresses to join the discussion via social media posts. Among them was Keke Palmer, who starred with Dolly Parton in the locally filmed movie “Joyful Noise” and appeared in the locally filmed series “Star.”

“No bill that criminalizes abortion will stop anyone from making this incredibly personal choice, but these laws will put more women at risk,” Philipps said. “Every woman deserves compassion and care, not judgment and interference when it comes to their own bodies.”

Although many studios maintained a “wait and see” stance while the legislation was still under debate, its signing has prompted many to speak out and even take action. An upcoming project produced by Kristen Wiig will film elsewhere in protest. Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, whose studio is behind a slew of locally shot Marvel movies, says it’ll be difficult to keep productions here if the law goes into effect.

Some film-business locals question the tactics prominent industry figures are taking.

“You’re taking a stand for women’s rights, but you aren’t thinking about women’s right to work,” said Scott Gooch, whose company, Film Builders, has a location in Savannah. “A lot of these people are trying to support women’s rights. That’s great, but they’re not doing it the right way.”

When “Ozark” star Jason Bateman won best male actor in a drama series at the January SAG Awards, he used his acceptance speech to inspire those hoping for a career break: “You’re plenty talented. Hang in there.”

» ‘Ozark’ star Jason Bateman says he won’t work in Georgia if ‘heartbeat bill’ survives court challenges

Bateman’s recent comments saying he won’t work in Georgia if the heartbeat law survives legal challenges had the opposite effect, Gooch said.

“Jason Bateman won the SAG Award and then he turns on everyone who helped him,” said Gooch, who helps productions secure filming locations, warehouse and office space, temporary housing and extras casting. “When you say you’re not going to film here, you’re turning your backs on everyone who helped you.”

» Ron Howard says he will boycott Georgia if abortion law takes effect

Actor Kevin Saunders, who moved to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., to pursue opportunities in Georgia’s film industry, put it this way: “Stand and fight. Don’t leave. The common folks like myself don’t have the luxury of packing up and leaving.”

Some observers say Georgia’s conservative sensibilities shouldn’t surprise the film industry. Grocery store shoppers couldn’t buy alcohol on Sunday until 2011, years after big- and small-screen productions revved up here. Chick-fil-A President and CEO Dan Cathy was an early investor in Pinewood Studios, and he led a group prayer at the 2016 launch of the Georgia Film Academy’s Pinewood soundstage.

“We pray those that step onto this stage will be given tools they need to be the great storytellers of tomorrow,” said Cathy, whose restaurants are closed on Sunday in keeping with his faith. “May the next generation of Ron Howards and Steven Spielbergs step up on this very stage.”

Marvel blockbusters including “Captain America: Civil War,” “Ant-Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spiderman: Homecoming” and the last two “Avengers” movies are among the projects that have filmed at Pinewood.

» Budget for Atlanta-filmed “Avengers: Endgame” was upward of $600 million

Faith and Josh Smith of Newnan, who were part of an Atlanta Movie Tours group the other day, are proud of Georgia’s place in the film industry. They don’t appreciate stars and studio chiefs who live elsewhere jumping into state politics or threatening to leave over the recent legislation, though.

“I don’t think this is going to hurt the state,” Josh Smith said. “Atlanta is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. When you chose Atlanta, you chose that knowing that was what this is.”

Milano’s television series “Insatiable” has been filming near their home.

“I think she just needs attention,” Faith Smith said of Milano’s outspoken opposition to the heartbeat law. “She went out and pitched a fit and got on the news and she’s still in Atlanta working. So what’s the point?”

» Alyssa Milano tells Hollywood to leave Georgia after ‘heartbeat’ abortion bill passed the Senate

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