A phrase often inaccurately attributed to Socrates is, “The only thing I know is I know nothing.” Regardless of attribution, the phrase carries with it an element of eternal truth, and that element lives in the debate as to whether the film and television industry will depart Georgia en masse in the wake of House Bill 481 abortion restrictions becoming law.
The unanswered question is will a negative reaction by this billion-dollar industry cause significant detrimental effects to the state?
The outlook is decidedly cloudy.
It’s possible to look at what’s happened in another Southern state. Film and TV work prospered in North Carolina, but a significant faction of the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly became hostile to the industry it saw as opposed to its social conservatism, and killed the state’s incentive program in 2014, turning it into a grant program, which led to a large reduction in projects based in the state.
On top of that was the fiasco around H.B. 2 in 2016, viewed by detractors as punitively discriminatory against transgender people. During the year H.B. 2 was law in the state, the Associated Press estimates North Carolina lost $3.76 billion in business — $196 million of that from canceled entertainment and sports projects.
A study by the North Carolina Fiscal Research Division concluded, though, it’s hard to tell the impact of small events, like H.B. 2, in larger economic trends in a populous and economically diverse state like North Carolina.
Anecdotal tales have it that Georgia benefited from North Carolina’s antipathy to the entertainment industry, but there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back that up as of yet.
Tossing a bomb of a social wedge issue into the 2019 Georgia legislative session appeared to run counter to how efforts progressed at the beginning of the session, which included the first meeting of the state House of Representatives’ Working Group on Creative Arts & Entertainment.
The difference between this controversy and what went down in North Carolina over a period of three or four years, though, is the Georgia legislature is much more supportive of the entertainment industry, and those blockbuster incentives aren’t going anywhere.
State film staff and legislators alike celebrated the 2008 law that revolutionized film and TV investment in Georgia. That law provided a flat 20 percent tax credit on qualified production expenditures and another 10 percent in addition if the production used a Georgia promotional logo, like the “made in Georgia” sequence at the end of an episode.
In 2018, Georgia was home to 455 productions — that includes films, TV movies and series, commercials and music videos — which resulted in $2.7 billion in direct spending and a larger $9.5 billion in economic impact.
Lee Thomas, state deputy commissioner for Film, Music and Digital Entertainment, told the legislative working group in February that Georgia’s film incentive program’s changed lives. Pat Wilson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development, said entertainment is a crucial part of the state’s overall economic performance.
Georgia was the No. 1 filming location in the world last year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Even with projects not specifically based in an area of the state, businesses there could get a part of the action — the Will Smith film “Gemini Man,” for instance, which opens in October, used more than 330 vendors, including businesses based in Brunswick and St. Simons Island.
“The way we’ve tackled economic development over the last eight years was really holistically, looking at jobs across — whether it’s global commerce or international trade or tourism or film or the arts — there is something unique in every community in this state, that creates jobs,” Wilson said. “And all of these things work together, and film is a great, big piece of that.”
Since the introduction of the Georgia incentive law, Glynn County’s attracted movies like “X Men: First Class,” “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” “Magic Mike XXL,” and of course 2017’s “Live By Night,” which Brunswick notoriously poached from Florida.
There have also been a number of television shows and related work that may be less well known, but money from which spends the same. Scott McQuade, CEO of the Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau, did not return a message left for him asking about whether the CVB’s heard talk about H.B. 481’s impact on Glynn County filming.
As recently reported by The News, “The Walking Dead,” which filmed on Jekyll Island in 2016, is coming back later this month. Despite the original series being a decade old, the powers that be behind the franchise see more spin-offs, at least three movies, and other projects that could make the AMC series the zombie version of the “Law & Order” franchise, with requisite jobs and investment to follow.
An AMC news release contained the statement that the company will re-evaluate its position in Georgia as the legal battle over the constitutionality of H.B. 481 continues. In saying so, AMC joins other companies like CBS, NBC, Sony and Viacom in signaling it is open to going elsewhere.
Among well-known actors, producers and directors opposed to the legislation, some have ruled out working in Georgia until H.B. 481 is off the books, and others have advocated to remain here and use money earned in Georgia productions to help Georgia groups that are also opposed to the abortion law.
Friday, the AP reported director Spike Lee said it’s time to shut down productions in Georgia until the state moves in a different direction.
“I know it’s going to affect people’s livelihood,” Lee said. “But that’s how things change.”