The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade puts Hollywood between a rock and a hard place. While some entertainment industry executives may have tried in years past to stay out of the political fray, industry leaders have been spurred to weigh in on issues that talent has started to consider deal-breakers when assessing whether to work on projects with certain partners. Major studios now understand that they risk ostracizing talent — and viewers — by staying silent.
Most major Hollywood companies, including Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery, condemned the decision and informed employees that they will cover travel costs to venture out of state for abortions. The Writers Guild of America counted itself as the lone group in the industry to call for boycott filming in states that pass abortion bans, urging employers to “consider the laws of each state when choosing production locations.”
The conspicuous absence of widespread calls to boycott shooting in certain states that have passed and will pass abortion restrictions stands in stark contrast from when many in Hollywood threatened to pull investments from Georgia after it passed legislation in 2019 banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The difference this time around, industry insiders say, is lingering questions of whether ceasing filming in nearly half of the country is even possible, especially in states that collectively hand out billions a year in tax breaks to productions.
Hollywood’s answer to Georgia’s abortion ban, now that it’s poised to go into effect, may serve as litmus test in how the industry will respond to widely adopted laws across several states that have caught the ire of the majority of talent. Studios have said nothing on whether they will follow through with threats to boycott shooting in the state. It appears unlikely.
“It’s been relatively quiet,” says Alexxiss Jackson, a Georgia transplant of ten years who works as a director of photography. “Me and my first AD were talking about the concern of a boycott because there was so much talk about that, but I haven’t heard anything specific about it.”
After Georgia passed an abortion ban in 2019, Hollywood collectively mobilized in protest of the legislation. Netflix said it would pull projects from the state if the law went into effect. Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, AMC, Sony, CBS and Viacom followed with identical threats. Some made good on them: Kristen Wiig pulled production for Lionsgate comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar from Georgia as did the executive producers of Amazon Studios’ The Power. Bob Iger, former chief executive of Disney, said in response to the legislation that, “Many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard.” A mass boycott of filming in Georgia loomed.
But J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele went a different route. They forged ahead with shooting their respective projects in Georgia and opted to donate to organizations working to overturn the state’s so-called heartbeat bill. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams similarly urged studios and producers not to boycott shooting in the high-production state. While a boycott could send a message to lawmakers in a state that sees billions in spending from Hollywood every year, the thrust of their reasoning was that it would most hurt people on the ground working in the film industry — the majority of whom opposed the legislation. In Georgia, there are nearly 100,000 people working in the film industry.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the rationale appears to have resonated with decision-makers in the entertainment industry.
“I feel we got left out of the conversation when people called for a boycott; there was a disconnect,” says Melissa Simpson, executive director of Film Impact Georgia. “This time, people know that this would be hurting human beings that are already hurting.”
But beyond the impact of a boycott on labor, the hesitation from studios to pull productions from Georgia may boil down to tax breaks in some cases.
Since the widespread adoption of state incentive programs to lure Hollywood dollars, productions have steadily been fleeing California in favor of areas that offer more tax breaks. The credits attracted Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul to New Mexico, The Walking Dead and Avengers: Endgame to Georgia and Jurassic World and Now You See Me to Louisiana. These states have grown to be film hubs of their own with the production infrastructure to match.
Thirty-six states offer some form of tax breaks to the film industry. Two of them — Georgia and Louisiana — are major players in Hollywood and are likely to or have already passed laws restricting abortion access. Over the past two fiscal years ending in 2021, they doled out $2.11 billion in tax breaks to Hollywood even accounting for shutdowns forced by the pandemic.
Of the 22 states that have banned, mostly banned or will likely ban abortions, 15 offer tax credits to Hollywood to juice production. To the film industry, they offer nearly half a billion dollars every year in free money. (Excluding Georgia, which has no annual cap on its incentives program.)
A physical production executive at a major studio, who declined to be named for this story, tells The Hollywood Reporter that studios are unlikely to forego such massive tax breaks, which can make or break a production.
Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, notes that the entertainment industry has historically been averse to taking political action, especially when money’s on the line. While the majority of Hollywood leans progressive, viewers are not confined to one side of the aisle. After all, conservatives watch movies too.
“If you’re talking about Supreme Court decisions and laws in state legislatures, there’s thousands of those all the time,” Kuntz says. “Once you boycott one, some folks may see it as a slippery slope. That’s tricky. It’s very difficult for a large company to negotiate that.”
Instead of a mass boycott, decisions to pull investments from states with abortion restrictions may come from select studios and individuals.
“I have a feeling we’ll start seeing some companies declare that they won’t produce in certain states,” says Ivy Kagan Bierman, chair of Loeb & Loeb’s entertainment labor practice who handles guild and union talks for film, TV and digital companies. “When you talk about mobilizing, I anticipate that some key individuals on productions, such as directors, producers and talent, are going to take the positions that they do not want to be in projects that are being produced in some states.”
Questions also linger of what a mass boycott of shooting across more than half the country would look like and whether it’s even feasible. Jackson, who opposes calls to stop shooting in any state that passes abortion bans, observes: “How do you do that when it’s so gargantuan in scope?”