Battle lines are drawn between the film industry and Georgia over controversial 'heartbeat bill'
Georgia's controversial 'heartbeat bill,' which effectively bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, was signed into law by newly elected Gov. Brian Kemp in May, leading to an immediate and fierce backlash from studios and performers alike.
Kalena Boller smiles and gestures proudly around her at the leafy street we're standing on.
"We're on Broad Street," she explains. "It's a main hub of downtown Atlanta. It gives you a feel of any major metropolitan city. It's where you'd grab a coffee, a quiche, a glass of wine and sit on the sidewalk. Any major production that's come here, has shot here."
Boller is a location scout who finds suitable locations for movies and TV shows. In Georgia, her role is in demand. From Marvel blockbusters like "Black Panther," "Captain America" and "Avengers: Endgame," through to successful TV series like "The Walking Dead" and "Stranger Things," the Peach State has carved out a multi-billion-dollar industry on both the big and small screens.
Now, however, this industry is under threat. The controversial "heartbeat bill," which effectively bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, was signed into law by newly elected Gov. Brian Kemp in May. It led to an immediate and fierce backlash from studios and performers alike. Disney's Bob Iger joined a number of high-profile executives in hinting that productions could be withdrawn from Georgia if the law gets through the Supreme Court.
"I lean liberal, so I disagree with the bill," Boller says. "I think women should have a choice of what to do with their bodies. So, when it comes to somebody deciding to let the state decide what's going on with your health care and make decisions for you, that bothers me. I've had miscarriages, so it's very personal. But there's a time to listen, and the capitol needs to look at the people it's going to affect."
A Georgia native, Boller is among an army of workers servicing the film industry across the state. Unlike her, however, many of her colleagues are transplants who have moved here from elsewhere in the US to work.
Michael Mosher heads the makeup department of the show "Legacies," which shoots in Atlanta. "I'm originally from Connecticut and then lived in California for 30 years," he explains. He says he has mixed feelings about the "heartbeat bill" debate. "Boycotts can work, but I live in Georgia and if it succeeds, I'll probably be out of work and I'll have to move out of the state."
Mosher is angry about the law. "(It) is a grandstand by a small group of people who like to stomp their feet and get their way when it's none of their business, what happens between a woman and her doctor."
Matt Scheib, a stunt performer, believes there are as many as 300 people working in his field alone across the state.
"I'd guess there are less than eight to twelve of us from Georgia," he explains. "If work goes away, those people are looking to move again. They've already moved their lives, their families. And oftentimes, you have two parents that support themselves through the entertainment industry. It could create a real sense of disruption if it were to go that way."
While some studios, producers and performers have threatened to boycott Georgia if the bill gets through the courts, others have taken a different approach.
JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele announced in May that they would shoot their HBO series, "Lovecraft Country," in the state, but donate any profits to fighting the bill. "Make no mistake, this is an attack aimed squarely and purposely at women," the pair said in a statement. "We stand with Stacey Abrams and the hardworking people of Georgia, and will donate 100% of our respective episodic fees for this season to two organizations leading the charge against this draconian law."
Boller applauds this approach.
"I don't think boycotts will work here. I think studios should dig in their heels more. Put money behind groups that support left-leaning policies. Money talks. And I think conservatives look at the bottom line a lot more. Jordan Peele will take any of the money saved by filming in Georgia and put it into interest groups that support the fight against the bill. He's going to uplift the people and businesses here."
Georgia is a battleground state, and one stunt performer we spoke to suggested that the movie industry is part of the reason it is shifting from solid red in recent years. "Georgia is a battleground state because of the industry," she told me.
"I don't think a lot of film crews do vote Democrat," he says. "If you've ever been around the Teamsters or the grip department, they are as conservative as they come. Actors tend to be liberal. Makeup tends to be liberal. But if all of us moved out, it wouldn't change the voting a lot."
It would be tempting to assume those working in the industry are all vehemently opposed to the law, but one stunt performer -- who did not want to appear on camera because he feared retribution from his employers -- told us he supported it. "Some issues are bigger than a boycott -- like life," he said. He voted for Brian Kemp and said he was prepared to fight for the heartbeat bill, even if it costs the state economically. "We always have to listen to the left, who constantly berate us," he said. "This is a much bigger issue than having a job."
Mosher warns that the economic impact of a boycott would reach far beyond the industry itself.
"Besides the stages we shoot in, we have dry cleaners and caterers and the grocery store up the street, and in my business, we support local stores and restaurants. There are a lot of people who aren't just camera people and actors who are involved with the business. I'd guess there are a million people who are affected by the film industry who aren't the crews."
Cases against the bill are winding their way through the courts. Attorneys for the state of Georgia filed a motion Monday to dismiss the ACLU's lawsuit against it, saying that the law is constitutional. The ACLU filed the suit in June on behalf of several organizations, charging that the heartbeat bill prevents "Georgians from exercising their fundamental constitutional right to decide whether to have an abortion."
This is a story that still has a long way to run. Like many dramas in today's America, the final scene will take place in court, in front of a deeply divided judiciary.