The pleasantries were kept to a minimum. The questions were sharp and to the point. And the dozens of Hollywood figures wanted to know why Stacey Abrams wasn't joining their call to boycott Georgia because of its new abortion restrictions.
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The Georgia Democrat traveled to Los Angeles on Tuesday to meet with this anxious group — and hold quieter conferences with studio leaders — to try to quell growing backlash from film workers furious that Gov. Brian Kemp signed the “heartbeat” bill into law.
She encountered a deeper strain of unrest than expected. Some in the private meeting challenged her to explain why they should stay in a state pushing values they can’t support. Her answer, she said in an interview from the Beverly Hilton, was that ditching Georgia wouldn’t further their cause.
“Not everyone agreed, but there was much more agreement when we left than arrived,” she said. “I don’t disparage boycotts. They have their function. But this is a situation where the political realities are that a boycott won’t have the intended effect.”
The film business, long the toast of Georgia’s economy, is toying with an open rebellion against the state since Kemp signed the “heartbeat” bill, which is set to outlaw most abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy and before many women even know they are pregnant.
Some prominent Hollywood figures vowed to no longer work in Georgia, studios have hinted at abandoning projects, and antsy local film executives worry the governor has brought about a "sea change" in the state's reputation.
Abrams warns the fallout is "just the tip of the spear" that could spread to other industries if not handled right. And she used her visit to contrast with Kemp, her rival in last year's close race for governor, who postponed his own trip to Los Angeles last month amid talk of protests.
Kemp has tried to calm nerves by repeating his promise to preserve the tax credits. But he’s also mocked the celebrities who are infuriated by his support for the legislation.
The governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he is upholding campaign promises to pass the nation’s strictest abortion laws, a stance he said he won’t reverse even if the “other side is going to continue to push it politically.”
“There’s a lot of noise and a lot of chatter, but the people who I’m talking to understand the great business environment we have for film, they know we have the best workforce and it’s only getting better,” he said in an interview.
“I’m not worried about what people from Hollywood are saying. The people on the ground know we have a great environment, and it’s going to continue to stay that way,” he added. “They have to work through the politics of that, but I’ve got to keep governing the state.”
Tuesday’s visit was a visceral reminder of the fallout. Organized with the help of former CBS Chairwoman Nina Tassler, the audience was dotted with a cross section of the industry: executives, producers and actors, but also lower-level staffers who work behind the scenes.
Abrams urged the crowd not to rush to action since a legal battle over the legislation could rage for years. Besides, she told them, next year's legislative elections and the 2022 race for statewide offices could upend Georgia's political dynamic.
“We’ve got a timetable for when the bomb is going to explode. People are deciding when they’re going to leave the room,” she said. “Some decided they’re out now, others are waiting it out. My point is we need people to stay as long as possible to defuse it.”
There's room to maneuver. Several of the major studios that have criticized the legislation added an important caveat: that they will rethink their investments in Georgia if the legislation is enforced.
The law will face a certain legal challenge before it takes effect in January, and even conservative supporters concede it’s bound to be blocked by a federal judge.
In fact, they hope it will: They want it to get bounced to the U.S. Supreme Court and become the test case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.
Leaving Georgia, however, is no easy task. The industry has invested in a web of costly studios, soundstages and equipment now firmly rooted in the state.
“The infrastructure in Georgia is not easy to pull out,” said Matt Donnelly, the senior film writer for Variety, the trade publication that tracks Hollywood. “There are lucrative multiyear deals, subleases on soundstages — you can’t just move out of town.”
The industry has thrived thanks to the nation's most lucrative film tax incentives. Direct film spending in Georgia reached $2.7 billion last year, and the roughly 450 projects shot in the state in the past year supported roughly 92,000 jobs.
From the studio perspective, Donnelly added, “there’s still a massive silent prayer this issue gets kicked to the courts — and shot down.”
State officials privately grumble that an industry showered with generous incentives — more than $800 million in film tax breaks last year — is trying to dictate Georgia policy. And Republicans used the occasion to needle Abrams for her refusal to concede the race for governor.
“She is not the governor,” Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said, “but Hollywood is the perfect place for her to pretend to be one.”
Kemp, meanwhile, said the law preserves the sanctity of life and upholds a campaign vow to sign the nation's "toughest" abortion restrictions. And he told Republican activists in Savannah last month that he would defend the law "even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk."
He has promised to preserve the tax incentives and said he will fight for "hardworking" film crew members. But he postponed a visit to Los Angeles in May amid threats of protests and no-shows. Instead, he conducted a closed-door tour of the state-financed Georgia Film Academy.
“From my perspective, it doesn’t change the fundamentals that we have in the state,” he said of the blowback. “And it doesn’t change my position, which has been consistent for two years: I support life, and I support the film tax credit. I support the great business environment of the state.”
With a potential 2022 rematch looming, Abrams has pummeled Kemp for not responding to a group of Georgia executives who sought a meeting and said she's been forced to speak with leaders of every major Hollywood studio because "they are not hearing from anyone" in Kemp's office.
"I would prefer it if our elected leader did his job and had these conversations and took the hits if he has to. But the absence of engagement puts all of us at risk," she said. "Those who are upset that I'm speaking aloud should call the question: Why am I the only voice?"