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If Hollywood Takes a Stand for Abortion Rights, the ‘Heartbeat Bill’ Could Cost Millions

Alyssa Milano’s call to boycott Georgia has not found support by studios, which rely on the state's unique and valuable tax incentives.

“Avengers: Infinity War”

Last month, both branches of the Georgia Legislature passed the “Heartbeat Bill,” which would ban abortions after six weeks, or when a doctor can detect a fetus’ heartbeat; it awaits Governor Brian Kemp’s signature before becoming law. Led by actress Alyssa Milano, who shoots her dark comedy “Insatiable” in Atlanta, over 100 prominent Hollywood figures have signed a letter warning the state that they would no longer be willing work in Georgia should the bill become law.

This isn’t a token gesture. Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, are crucial parts of Hollywood film and television production, and save studios hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

While it’s not the only state to offer a 30 percent tax incentive program on production costs, it’s the only one that extends the kickback to include the salaries of actors, producers, writers and directors. So when Marvel shot “Avengers: Infinity Wars” and “Black Panther” in Atlanta, Disney not only received 30 percent back on the cost of equipment rentals, crew, stages, hotels, and other productions costs — as they would under the New York or New Mexico tax incentive programs — but the salaries of Ryan Coogler and Robert Downey Jr. came with the same discount.

Alyssa Milano

Alyssa Milano

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

That’s why 455 film and TV productions shot in Georgia during the 2018 fiscal year (which started July 2017), resulting in the state refunding Hollywood to the tune of $800 million, more than New York and California rebates combined. During that period, the Motion Picture Association of America estimated that the film industry generated more than 92,000 jobs with an average salary of $84,000 in the state.

New Jersey and Illinois have used the Heartbeat Bill controversy opportunity to publicly lure productions away from Georgia, highlighting that there are tax-incentive states hungry for Georgia’s production. At the same time, demand for tier 1 sound stages in New York and New Mexico that can accommodate big-budget shows and movies outstrips supply, and California’s 25 percent tax incentive is capped and qualified projects are picked based on their “jobs ratio score.” So while there are definitely alternatives to shooting in Georgia, the state is unique not only for its tax credit but also for the tremendous infrastructure and crew base that grew to meet state’s film and TV boom.

While prominent stars like Brie Larson and Mark Ruffalo signed Milano’s pledge, and guilds like the WGA have sent warnings to the state, none of the studios have felt compelled to make the same threat. When Georgia’s conservative politics threatened LGBTQ rights in the form of the 2016 Free Exercise Protection Act (HB 757) — a bill that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to LGBT individuals — Disney, Fox, Time Warner, Netflix, Open Road, Sony, and Lionsgate all threatened to boycott the state should the bill be signed into law.

In the case of HB 757, there was hope the threat of a boycott could influence then Governor Nathan Deal’s decision to sign the bill. At the time, the former governor sent mix signals about the anti-LGBTQ legislature, which he ultimately vetoed. That would not appear to be the case with the “Heartbeat Bill” and newly elected Governor Kemp, who campaigned on tougher anti-abortion restrictions and sent a congratulatory tweet when the bill passed the state legislature.

“I can’t govern because I’m worried about what someone in Hollywood thinks about me,” Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution following Milano and 30 other Georgia film workers trip to the Georgia Capitol on April 2. “I ran the last two years on these issues, and I got elected with the largest number of votes in the history of the state of Georgia, and I’m doing what I told people I would do.”

Brie Larson, "Captain Marvel"

“Captain Marvel”

Marvel Studios

Kemp has until May 12 to sign the “Heartbeat Bill,” which has sat on his desk for two weeks. Once he signs it, the six-week abortion ban wouldn’t go into effect until January 1, 2020. The law would also will instantly be challenged in the courts. A similar 2016 six-week abortion law was overturned in North Dakota, as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized a woman’s right to an abortion until a fetus can live outside its mother’s womb. It’s the Supreme Court, though, that Georgia’s “Heartbeat Bill,” and others like it in Kentucky and Ohio, have set their sights upon, as pro-life states rush to be the first to test the highest court’s willingness to challenge Roe v. Wade with the recent appointment of conservative Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

At this point it is unclear at what point, if any, a critical mass of pro-choice creative and executive talent could force studios to pull out of the state. That Larson alone — likely to be featured in a number of future Marvel productions, which have made Atlanta a second home during the MCU run — could potentially force the issue for such a major franchise only highlights how quickly this politically sensitive issue could steamroll. That said: Larson’s “Captain Marvel” was the first Marvel film to take advantage of the California tax credit.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the California tax incentive was still a lottery-based system. The CA lottery ended in 2015.

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