When is a boycott not a boycott but merely an act of long-distance virtue signaling?
Alternately, in what circumstances can a boycott actually effect change?
The matter’s in the news at the moment because a few highly placed entertainment company muckymucks are cautiously floating the idea of pulling their production slates from Georgia if the draconian “fetal heartbeat” abortion bill signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp actually goes into effect as planned, on Jan. 1, 2020.
On May 28, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told Variety that the company would “rethink our entire investment in Georgia” should the law be enforced. That was the push other corporate leaders needed. The following day, Disney Company CEO Bob Iger told a Reuters reporter, “I don’t see how it’s practical for us to continue to shoot there” if the law is enacted.And the day after that, WarnerMedia announced it would “reconsider” Georgia as a filming site, executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Viacom, and AMC Network made similar comments, and NBCUniversal released a statement saying that “fetal heartbeat” bills in Georgia and elsewhere would “strongly impact” its decisions about where to film.
It should be noted that these companies will continue to film movies and TV shows in Georgia for the time being. And other companies have remained mum. Still, when the film studio responsible for a third of all major US movie releases and the streaming channel that is remaking how audiences use television say they’ll pull the plug, it’s hard just to stand by.
And the fact is that Georgia — and Atlanta in particular — have become a critical part of the film production industry ever since passing a 30 percent tax-rebate incentive measure in 2008. (The rebates cover not only production costs but actors’ salaries, making the plan doubly appealing to studios working with pricey stars.) How big is “Hollywood South”? In 2018, 455 shows and films were shot on 80 in-state soundstages, creating 92,000 jobs and a $9 billion overall economic impact. Marvel superhero movies like “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Endgame” have filmed there. So have hit shows like “Stranger Things” and “The Walking Dead.” A great number of craft professionals — grips, costume designers, you name it — have relocated themselves and their families from the West Coast to the Peachtree State.
Which raises an interesting point about a Georgia production boycott, if it were to happen: Would punishing those craft personnel by denying them their livelihood be worth the pressure put on conservative politicians who, judging by their responses so far, don’t welcome Hollywood telling them what to do? One state representative, Dominic LaRiccia, told reporters, “if they back me into a corner with a boycott, I have to give ’em the old South Georgia [saying], ‘Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.’ ”
Some pro-choice Georgians have been arguing on social media that boycotts might have the effect of driving away more moderate voters when the hotly contested gubernatorial contest between Kemp and Stacey Abrams proves that red states are bluer than many outsiders think and may even be possible to flip. While it’s counterintuitive to expect studios to double down on their commitments in Georgia, some filmmakers are taking a middle-of-the-road approach.
The HBO production “Lovecraft Country” will continue to film in Georgia, but producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele have said they will donate 100 percent of their “episodic fees” — their pay before overtime — to the American Civil Liberties Union and Abrams’s state election reform group Fair Fight Georgia. By contrast, director Reed Morano (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) has pulled her new Amazon Studios series, “The Power,” from shooting in Georgia, and “Bridesmaids” writers, actress Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo, have announced they’ll take their new movie “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” elsewhere. Should the abortion ban actually go into effect, expect other producers and studio heads to line up behind the four who’ve already tentatively committed.
But would it work? Would the threat of scuttling a $9 billion state industry force anti-abortion ideologues to give in? The fact is that similar boycott threats have worked before, most notably when Georgia tried to pass a 2016 “religious freedom” bill that would have essentially sanctioned LGBTQ discrimination. Disney and Marvel vowed to leave the state, the NFL said to forget about any Atlanta Super Bowls, and then-governor Nathan Deal ultimately vetoed the bill. That same year, the North Carolina anti-transgender “bathroom bill” was modified after Bruce Springsteen and the NCAA pledged to stay away.
Of course, the politicians and groups behind the restrictive abortion laws that have been enacted in Georgia and seven other states proclaim they can do without tainted liberal Hollywood money just fine. Whether they believe that or not isn’t the point. The point is to force the matter to the United States Supreme Court and hopefully overturn Roe v. Wade altogether. That’s the end game and all other issues, film and TV production included, are secondary. (The extremity of the new laws may be part of the design, intended to be overturned so that newer bans might seem less stringent by comparison.)
Zealots don’t care about niceties and nuance; zealots want what they want. By making noises about a boycott without yet committing to one, Netflix and Disney are speaking to everyone in Georgia who isn’t a zealot and hoping they’ll rise up. It’s all very tentative for now. What might truly change the equation would be if the studios themselves were to get hit in the pocketbook, and the only way that might happen is if audiences — that’s right, you and me — promised to boycott any movie or TV show filmed in Georgia. It’s easy enough to Google up what’s in production right now.
Right, as if that’ll ever happen. Who expects the average American couch potato (that’s right, you and me) to skip “Stranger Things” season three or the HBO Stephen King adaptation “The Outsider” — both currently shooting in the state — on principle alone? Who believes our entertainment-addicted friends and neighbors would ever give up their Constitutional right to fun? Even if the right to their own bodies, or those of Americans just like them, were on the line?