One Monday in early April, Sara Riney got an unexpected text message. Urgent and unusual requests were part of the job of the 46-year-old Atlantan, who, as a set decoration buyer, was responsible for buying couches, brick pizza ovens, and anything else needed to bring Hollywood sets to life. Her recent hectic schedule on Doom Patrol, a DC Universe web series, had prevented Riney from signing an open letter that asked Hollywood studios to oppose Georgia House Bill 481, which would ban abortions performed after a fetus’s first heartbeat, typically around the six-week mark of a pregnancy. This text from a fellow colleague offered Riney another chance to fight the bill, whose fate now rested in the hands of Brian Kemp, Georgia’s newly elected Republican governor. Would you help film industry colleagues to attend a last-minute rally against the so-called “heartbeat” bill? Riney said yes.
The following afternoon Riney headed inside the Georgia Statehouse, past the state troopers working security, toward a white marble staircase. As she took photos with the Handmaid Coalition of Georgia, a group of women who silently protested in red-robed costumes featured in The Handmaid’s Tale, she heard that Stacey Abrams—the popular Democrat who had narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race—might make an appearance. But five minutes before the press conference, Alyssa Milano arrived. Riney’s heart sank. She knew the progressive California actor, who filmed Netflix’s Insatiable in Georgia, was a polarizing figure among the state’s politicians. Milano’s floating of a Georgia boycott hadn’t sat well with local film workers. Yet Riney couldn’t just leave—it would look bad for a tall, blond woman wearing a “We Work Here” T-shirt to walk away from the TV cameras. So she stood in the back, listening to fellow Georgians share their story, doing her best to bite her tongue.
But Milano, who delivered a demand letter to the governor’s office, stole the headlines. On May 9, the day after Kemp signed HB 481, Milano issued an ultimatum to Netflix: Leave Georgia, or I’ll leave your show. Then came the columns—including one titled, “Dear Hollywood: Georgia’s new abortion law means you have to stop shooting there. Now”—that amplified the boycott calls. Soon, California’s largest studios, echoing their actors, escalated the tensions: They would consider leaving Georgia if HB 481 went into effect on January 1, 2020.
Riney felt the Hollywood intervention, however well-intentioned, was misguided. “The moment felt usurped,” she later told me. (A spokesperson for Milano did not respond to a request for comment.) The moment also awakened Riney to the delicate nature of what she thought was an unflappable industry, and to the increasingly fraught relationship between Georgia’s film workers and the film industry at large.
The high-profile headlines continued, but when few Hollywood figures followed the lead of J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele—who vowed to keep their forthcoming horror series, Lovecraft Country, in Georgia while also donating their episodic fees to the ACLU’s legal fund—Riney grew skeptical. Each new Hollywood statement sparked more questions: Why had Hollywood singled out Georgia when film-friendly states like Louisiana and New Mexico had also passed laws that restricted abortions? Would there be a mass exodus of productions? Would she be able to find work? While the wave of moral outrage swept over the Hollywood of the South, Riney noticed voices of local film workers—set designers and stuntmen, camera operators and costume designers, gaffers and grips—missing from the conversation.
“It was so surreal,” she said. “All these op-eds written that said, ‘Here’s what the women of Georgia need.’ But no women from Georgia quoted in your article? You’re going to write this article and not even ask for our side?”
The week after Mother’s Day, when a Los Angeles Times reporter did reach out, Riney pushed back hard against her California counterparts, telling the paper, “We’re the boots on the ground.” As she countered a convenient Hollywood narrative, she realized film workers like herself would need more than words to preserve their slice of the Georgia entertainment industry. And those actions would need to come from people with roots in Georgia—the kinds who voted local, bought houses, raised families. With every new statement, she felt a greater urgency to push back. As she put it recently, “We needed to speak for ourselves.”
On a recent Monday morning, Kevin Saunders stood at the front of an Atlanta Movie Tours bus, encouraging nearly 30 die-hard superhero fans to snap photos of an empty downtown building featured in The Walking Dead and the park that hosted the epic fight scene in Anchorman 2. Many of the tourists, wearing Avengers T-shirts, had never visited Atlanta before. But they immediately recognized their surroundings. As the visitors photographed Atlanta’s movie landmarks, the aspiring-actor-cum-tour-guide told the tale of how Georgia became the Hollywood of the South, a multibillion-dollar juggernaut now home to more blockbuster movie production than California or New York.
Atlanta has stood in for other cities around the world (a downtown federal courthouse becomes a destroyed Lagos building in Captain America: Civil War) and worlds yet to exist (the Marriott Marquis hotel plays the part of the tribute quarters in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). City Hall starred as the United Nations headquarters (Black Panther); Porsche’s North American headquarters filled in for the Avengers headquarters. Countless other city blocks have played parts of chase scenes, bank robberies, and zombie showdowns. After two hours of tidbits about Baby Driver, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and other blockbuster hits, Saunders threw a question to the tourists: “Does anybody know the number-one reason for why there’s all this filming going on here?”
“Tax breaks?” a hesitant tourist replied.
“Tax breaks!” Saunders said.
Before Georgia heavily subsidized Hollywood, studios rarely filmed in Georgia—even for films like Gone With the Wind that had locally based plots. But in the early 1970s, after the release of Deliverance, then-governor Jimmy Carter established the state’s first film office. Out-of-state directors occasionally came to Georgia to film movies like Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes, but the state was not a Hollywood hub; as Monty Schuth, a costume designer who moved to Georgia in the mid-’80s, puts it, “We didn’t attract more than In the Heat of the Night.” As a growing metro Atlanta vied for the world stage, becoming the “third coast” of American hip-hop and hosting the 1996 Olympics, Georgia marketed itself as a business-friendly state that sought to recruit more large companies and jobs, often by boosting the fact that Atlanta had become a hub for Fortune 500 companies. But in the mid-2000s, Georgia’s modest subsidies meant that the state lost the chance to host production for Ray, the biopic of iconic Georgia singer Ray Charles. In 2008, state lawmakers overhauled the Georgia Film Tax Credit, hoping to grow its modest industry beyond $93 million worth of annual productions.
Since then, film officials have described the tax credit as a runaway success, now responsible for pumping $9.5 billion into the economy each year. On the tour, Saunders explained how it works: Spend more than $500,000 on a production in Georgia, get a 20 percent tax break. Place a peach logo in your movie’s credits, advertising the state, get another 10 percent. “You’re looking at a 30 percent tax incentive just to film here.” Saunders explained on the tour. “And what’s cool is that places like Savannah have rebate programs on top of that, sometimes adding on another 10 percent.” Over the next decade, Georgia doled out more than $4 billion in credits, and the state now forgoes more tax revenue than California and New York combined. The Peach State was able to poach productions from those states for two key reasons: Georgia does not cap its tax credit, and allows for the transfer or sale of the credits, allowing studios to effectively offset their production costs. Despite the tax credit’s anecdotal success, a 2017 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Georgia “lacks a process for evaluating the film tax credit” program’s effectiveness. And Kennesaw State University economist J.C. Bradbury says that economic development and industry groups overestimate the dollars and jobs associated with Georgia films. “Those numbers have no grounding in fact,” said Bradbury, who recently published a policy brief that sought to provide more accurate figures.
Industry boosters like Jeffrey Stepakoff, an Atlanta-raised TV writer (The Wonder Years, Dawson’s Creek) who heads the Georgia Film Academy, have woven the industry’s success into Georgia’s broader economic narrative. Over the years, Stepakoff has rolled out a tagline that’s as wholesome and corny as his shows: Peaches, Peanuts, Production. Simultaneously, corporate-friendly Atlanta embraced its title as the “Hollywood of the South.” Inside dozens of newly constructed soundstages throughout the region, thousands of Georgians, working in roles such as camera operator, grip, and costume designer, helped make the state the world’s most popular film location in 2016. From July 2017 to June 2018, 455 TV and film productions qualified for Georgia’s tax credit.
And transplants like Saunders, a native of Washington, D.C., moved to Georgia to launch their careers. He had acted for a decade, mostly in local theater, in part because little filming happened near where he lived. When he decided to pursue acting in movies and shows, Saunders initially considered Los Angeles and New York. Upon researching Atlanta, and later visiting the city, he thought it’d be the easiest city for breaking into the field. Two years ago, he quit his corporate job and headed south. He’s since landed bit roles, including a brief speaking part on Doom Patrol (only his arm made it on screen), and had some near misses for larger ones. After working other jobs outside the industry, Saunders said he’s grateful that Georgia’s industry is now large enough to support side gigs like movie set tours that help pay the rent.
“I don’t have the luxury of working a full-time job because, at any moment, you have to be on set,” Saunders later told me. “This [tour guide] job has allowed me to be officially immersed in the industry.”
As the tour neared its end, and Saunders reiterated how Hollywood has reshaped Georgia, noting that “no matter where you’re at in the state, you will benefit off these incentives.” In doing so, though, he glossed over the rising tensions that now jeopardized Georgia’s film industry. Since no one asked about HB 481, he hammered home the positives of Hollywood’s presence—the jobs, the growth, the investment—and predicted a bright future.
“Want to quit your day job?” he told the tourists. “They’re always hiring!”
When Keila Brown graduated from Bard College in the spring of 2014, she moved back home to Georgia. The film major found work—first as a production assistant, then as a casting assistant—that funded all her unpaid hours auditioning for acting gigs. Extra work led to one-line parts. As she sought out larger roles, she heard a common refrain: Go to California.
As Brown recently recalled: “I’m at the awkward point. I’m going out for bigger roles, and I’m not going to get them. It’s become an expectation that someone from L.A. or N.Y. is going to fly in to get that role.”
Brown’s dilemma, to stay and fight or go and thrive, is one faced by many Georgians. Like the rest of the film industry, the state’s productions are divided between workers who are “above the line”—writers, actors, producers, and directors who drive creative decisions—and “below the line”: grips, gaffers, and other unsung crew. Hollywood-based production companies will often fly to Atlanta its top actors, producers, and directors instead of hiring Georgians. (An early version of the film tax credit, before its expansion, offered 3 percent credit for hiring Georgia residents, but it was later removed.) Take, for instance, Baby Driver, the 2017 hit action film that prominently featured Atlanta in car chases and heists: Director Edgar Wright is from England, lead actor Ansel Elgort is from New York, and the producers are all from outside Georgia. (Wright’s spokesperson said the director was unavailable for comment, and spokespeople for producers and Elgort did not respond to requests for comment.) For Georgians, outside talent often means lower pay, more short-term contract work, and less creative input on the films bearing a peach logo. Local workers reshape their daily lives, be it working nights and weekends, or even shifts that are longer than 12 hours. “You’re at the mercy of whoever you’re working for,” one film worker said. As Atlanta-based entertainment attorney Nancy Prager puts it, Hollywood studios in Georgia are like Fortune 500 corporations that outsource production to a country with cheaper manufacturing costs. “We are China,” she said.
That disconnect has sparked a lively debate about the limitation of corporate welfare in a company town, causing Georgia’s film workers to reexamine the true benefits of being a state that creates more film sets than films concepts. Of the two-dozen Georgia-based workers I spoke with, everyone said the industry has opened up some new kinds of opportunities for locals. Production designer Molly Coffee, a south Georgia native with credits on shows like Brockmire and The Vampire Diaries, makes six figures a year without a college diploma. And Heather Hutton, who grew up in suburban Atlanta, used her skills as an airline mechanic to transition into a job as a welder on The Walking Dead. When Brian Gabriel burned out of his auditing job for a medical software company, he tried being an extra, before finding work in a props department. Even Brown, who’s had to self-fund trips out west in search of better opportunities, concedes some local actors like Madison Lintz (The Walking Dead) and Priah Ferguson (Stranger Things) have booked regular roles in Georgia.
Michael Patterson, born and raised a short drive from Pinewood Studios, one of the nation’s largest purpose-built studios, foresees more opportunities above the line. After graduating from college in 2009, he dreamed of a creative gig in the industry. Instead of moving to Los Angeles, he moved home with his parents to save money. “It just so happened, the industry picked up, and a friend had an uncle who got me into the union,” he said. So Patterson set aside his creative ambitions for a career as a set-lighting technician. He paid his dues, which came with benefits like health insurance, even if the work wasn’t always steady at first. Over time, though, he found steady work, and climbed the ladder to the point where he’s occasionally working as a department head on some sets. He said that Hollywood’s presence in Georgia can have the potential to help local workers learn the tools of the trade to make their own films. As Georgia filmmakers produce more work, they can, in turn, be tapped for more prestigious roles on out-of-state productions.
But Georgian actors like Brown are more likely to hit a ceiling when the top roles are filled by Californians. And the Hollywood of the South isn’t set up to support local filmmakers. One reason that isn’t happening yet: The tax credit supports productions only above $500,000. Not only do local filmmakers miss out on incentives, they’re unable to pay competitively. Yet California’s below-the-line workers still make higher wages, in part because Georgia is a right-to-work state, which prohibits industries from requiring union membership. While higher wages have clear benefits, they also mean people are more likely to collect a Hollywood paycheck than help on a local production.
“It’s more difficult to find a regular crew,” said Bret Wood, a veteran independent filmmaker in College Park, Georgia. “Indie filmmakers are forced to work with ‘pick-up crews,’ rotating through sound recordists, grip [and] electric crew, hair/makeup, script supervisors and camera crews on an ‘as available’ basis.”
Hollywood’s presence has also driven up film location costs. For years Wood had hoped to shoot an indie film on Emory University’s Briarcliff Campus, home to both a former state psychiatric hospital and the former estate of Coca-Cola scion Asa Griggs Candler Jr. Making low-budget productions that rarely cost more than $70,000, he hoped to secure the site for a one-day shoot under $1,000. In the past, local institutions had let him shoot for that rate or less because they were excited to be a part of a movie made by Georgians. Hollywood’s larger budget had shrunk the pool of places that he could get discounted rates. In November 2018, he reached out to Emory about that one-day shoot at the Coca-Cola scion’s mansion, but his request was declined. The reason: Emory had reached an exclusive long-term filming contract with Stranger Things. (The psych hospital is known best as the Hawkins National Laboratory.)
“There’s a sense that people start to feel that the only way to be successful is to be on TV or in a feature film,” said Tim Habeger, a veteran actor and producer who lives in Atlanta. “There’s a gold rush mentality that’s meant everyone is trying to work their way up through Hollywood.”
If Georgians are focused on being “hired help,” striving upward through Hollywood’s hierarchy, Habeger believes that path too often leads to an exodus of Georgia talent. And that exodus, in turn, deprives the state of talent that could create jobs and sway political decisions. To change that, several grassroots initiatives are hoping to build stronger roots for a local filmmaking community. Habeger and Shelby Hofer, cofounders of PushPush Film & Theater, have operated a program that incubates local filmmakers’ projects. Last year Coffee helped launch Film Impact Georgia, a nonprofit organization that offers grants, training, and mentorship to get local filmmakers noticed. Coffee, for her part, wants to eventually see state lawmakers create a fund that helps develop indie productions made by Georgia filmmakers. “We’re so busy hustling and sacrificing for Hollywood,” Coffee said. “If the entire time we had been investing in local creators … we would have more control, more say-so, more power in the conversation.”
As May turned to June, Riney watched the HB 481 debate veer into the national spotlight. In a private Facebook group, she and her colleagues analyzed the statements of studio execs as if they were reading tea leaves. The native Southerner knew that Georgia’s conservative politicians saw HB 481 as a vehicle to challenge, and perhaps overturn, Roe v. Wade. But the Hollywood threats? That felt like a betrayal, a self-serving plot for Californians to get their industry back.
“[They were] using us, and our jobs, as political footballs, to make whatever fucking point they want to make,” Riney said. “And we had no control.”
Riney’s understanding of narratives—both controlled and lost—started well before Hollywood’s growth in Georgia. She had spent more than a decade in communications for prominent nonprofit organizations including AID Atlanta and the Camp Coca-Cola Foundation. And she knew how to draw people into a story, be it explaining the inner workings of her roller derby league or demanding reforms to Atlanta’s dysfunctional 911 call center after her neighbor’s house caught fire.
To change the HB 481 narrative—from leaving in protest to “staying and fighting”—Georgia’s film workers needed to know what they were fighting.
So she called friends from her union, IATSE Local 479—Coffee included—to find out what they were hearing from industry sources. They noticed a curious pattern. Someone like New York producer Neal Dodson would call for a boycott. But when they looked at his IMDb page, they realized he had never made a movie in Georgia. (Dodson, who told The Ringer that he had considered Georgia for an upcoming film, said he has supported the state with contributions to Planned Parenthood Southeast and Abrams’s campaign.) There was also actor Kristen Wiig, who pledged to transfer production of her upcoming comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar out of the state. After a few calls around, Riney learned that Wiig hadn’t opened an office in Georgia—an early logistical step that occurs months before the above-the-line talent steps foot in the state. “We figured it was BS,” Riney said of Wiig’s production. (A Wiig spokesperson declined to comment.)
Though Riney realized some threats were grandstanding, she couldn’t stop the internet from spreading Wiig’s message. As major media executives like Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Disney’s Bob Iger followed with vague threats of boycott—joining a growing chorus of film industry figures that included Spike Lee and David Simon—Riney wondered whether the out-of-state messaging had less to do with social responsibility than financial self-preservation. Like a West Texas town that had struck oil, thousands of Georgians who struggled during the Great Recession had lucked into a windfall of employment opportunities. Over the past decade, Georgia had siphoned hundreds of productions, thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars from California’s economy. “We’re getting huge big blockbuster stuff in Georgia,” Riney points out. “With Black Panther, you have four times the crew. With [the last two] Avengers”—which were filmed back-to-back—“some Georgians worked 18 months straight.” Through Coffee and others, Riney had heard whispers of discontent out west about the rise of Georgia’s industry, but rarely paid much attention. (The Ringer reached out to the major studios to see whether their positions had changed. Only WarnerMedia, which owns HBO and Warner Bros., responded with a statement: “We operate and produce work in many states and within several countries at any given time and while that doesn’t mean we agree with every position taken by a state or a country and their leaders, we do respect due process. We will watch the situation closely and if the new law holds we will reconsider Georgia as the home to any new productions. As is always the case, we will work closely with our production partners and talent to determine how and where to shoot any given project.”)
Like many local workers, Riney had cobbled together work from major studios to ride out the worst of the Great Recession. In 2007, after getting laid off from a nonprofit communications job, she waited tables, uncertain whether she could pay her mortgage. At a party a couple of years later, a set decoration buyer told her about the role, which required “spending all day going to thrift stores and antique malls.” That conversation led to her first gig: a set dresser on Season 4 of Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns. Eventually, she moved up to set decoration buyer, working on one of Atlanta’s most iconic TV shows, The Walking Dead, which employed her for the next five years. Though she didn’t always know what the next gig would be, the booming industry led to enough work that she could keep her three-bedroom house, pay taxes, spend money at local restaurants.
“This money wouldn’t be spent in Georgia if we weren’t here,” Riney said. “We’re the lube, the grease on the wheels, cogs in the machine, that—when the rest of the economy is taking a hit because the fields are flooded or the tornadoes hit the pecan trees—keeps people from bottoming out.”
But with misinformation about the imminent departure of Hollywood spreading like wildfire since Kemp’s bill signing, Riney found herself counseling panicked colleagues with more accurate information. Some of this knowledge came from researching the threats to know which ones were empty or serious—including that of Jason Bateman, star of the Georgia-filmed Netflix show Ozark, who said he would boycott the state if the law went into effect. (A spokesperson for Bateman recently said “nothing has changed” regarding his position.) Other times, she walked her colleagues through the possible legal scenarios ahead, including what would happen if a lawsuit blocked HB 481. If that happened, Netflix, Disney, Marvel, and other large studios had indicated they wouldn’t pack up until the bill went into effect given their long-term leases with sound stages.
In the interim, though, Riney had informal conversations with colleagues about how to best organize thousands of workers interested in fighting to preserve Georgia’s film and TV industry. Should we raise money? Sign petitions? Stage protests? Look ahead toward the 2020 election? Everything was on the table. As Riney put it: “We were trying to understand: Who are the influencers? Who is watching over the golden goose? What can we do?”
When a reporter recently asked Stacey Abrams the inevitable question—How will HB 481 affect Georgia’s entertainment industry?—a smile disappeared from her face. After Kemp had recently canceled a California trip, Abrams traveled to the West Coast to meet with a group of studio executives, producers, and actors brought together by Nina Tassler, the former chairwoman of CBS. Instead of a boycott, Abrams asked them to stay and fight. Back at home, she told a group of journalists, Georgia had entered uncharted waters as a conservative state dealing with a progressive industry.
“When North Carolina was the hub, in the 1980s and early ’90s”—referring to a time when Democratic state lawmakers held power there—“you didn’t have these debates,” Abrams told reporters in a closed panel discussion. “This is the first time we’re seeing the direct intersection with social conservative policy and real medical consequence with the determinations of the entertainment industry.”
Abrams acknowledged the complex challenges this intersection posed for Georgia. While she felt Hollywood companies would stay until a Supreme Court ruling—likely after the 2020 election—she thought their executives would pause at locating longer-term projects there. Summarizing the concerns of those out in California, she noted that studio executives “will not put in place dollars and a commitment of talent that has to take place on a 36-month timeline … if you know that, at month 20, you could be forced to remove your talent and forfeit your infrastructure.” She said that kind of business risk was the product of lawmakers like Kemp, who, despite promoting the tax credit, acted in ways that now undermined its success. “It’s very shortsighted,” she continued, “and a deep misunderstanding of how studios make their decisions, to think they will stay after that time period, because their talent will not come.”
While celebrities and studio executives sought moral high ground in a loudening culture war against Georgia’s conservative lawmakers, local film workers have quietly noticed the inconsistencies of Hollywood’s efforts at corporate responsibility. Of the film workers I spoke with, one SuperFly assistant director pointed out that the industry hadn’t stopped filming in countries with poor track records for women’s rights; a TV show animator expressed dismay that industry leaders hadn’t advocated for expanding Medicaid in Georgia; and a Black Panther rigging electrician felt disappointed that celebrities hadn’t already spoken out for stronger labor laws.
Similarly, local film workers have heard Georgians’ complaints about the industry’s impact on their state. Some Atlantans blamed Hollywood for worsening traffic, street closures, and rising housing costs. At one point, residents cried foul over Tyler Perry’s “sweetheart” $30 million deal for a 330-acre portion of a former military base. More recently, environmental activists had tried to stop local officials from a land swap with Blackhall Studios that would destroy a natural habitat. Beyond Atlanta’s sprawl, however, Hollywood remained one of the few new industries investing in smaller and rural Georgia towns. Saunders points to the once-dying town Senoia, which was revived by The Walking Dead, which brought jobs, revenue, and zombie-loving tourists 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Andrew Huddleston, an art department coordinator originally from the once-sleepy railroad town of Hiram, said the industry has revitalized small towns throughout the state.
“Covington”—the small northeast Georgia town where The Vampire Diaries was filmed—“didn’t have a lot of commerce or traffic,” Huddleston pointed out. “Now there’s walking tours; there’s a restaurant modeled after the TV show. The town isn’t throwing up skyscrapers. Because of this show’s popularity, it trickled down to people starting small businesses.”
But bigger forces now jeopardized those small-town benefits. As Abrams further explained, businesses make decisions based on future projections as much as past decisions. So while Georgia has swayed purple, and has had a strong reputation as a “business-friendly” state, the instability might lead entertainment companies to reconsider their Georgia investments. No matter the carrot of having the nation’s most aggressive film tax credit, Dodson told The Ringer that HB 481 would make Georgia a nonstarter for filmmakers who did not want to “shoot somewhere where the laws feel un-American.” Case in point: The Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano, who pulled her forthcoming Amazon Prime drama series, The Power, from Georgia, because “it felt wrong [for] us to go ahead and make our show and take money/tax credit from a state that is taking this stance on the abortion issue.” (An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.) Referencing Morano’s dystopian show, Abrams told the reporters: “Young people aren’t going to want to be in a place where family planning is Gilead.”
Of all the unanswered questions, LaRonda Sutton had thought about one above the rest: “How do we protect everyone in this room?” One Saturday morning in late June, a couple hundred film and TV workers gathered inside a Home Park studio for an all-day “Women in Production” summit. Before speakers dove into the business of making films—work-life balance, unions, legal negotiations—Sutton, Atlanta’s first film-permitting czar, talked with other female industry leaders about HB 481’s potential impact on their business.
The veteran entertainment industry executive was not just addressing women’s reproductive rights, but their ability to preserve their jobs in Georgia. In her time at City Hall, she’d seen hundreds—if not thousands—of producers apply to make movies in Atlanta. Georgia’s work force can now staff 50 major productions at once. The business had boomed so much that she had recently left her City Hall gig to start Film City LLC, Georgia’s first film permitting facilitation company.
As Georgia’s industry grew, some conservatives started lobbying to eliminate the film-and-TV tax credit. More often, Hollywood’s growing presence, and its left-leaning politics, clashed with Georgia Republicans. In 2016, Sutton watched conservative state lawmakers pass a “religious freedom” bill that threatened LGBTQ people in Georgia. Along with corporations like Coca-Cola, Delta, and Home Depot, entertainment companies Disney, Marvel, Lionsgate, and MGM urged Kemp’s predecessor, governor Nathan Deal, to veto the bill. Deal, a centrist Republican who sought to protect the state’s pro-business reputation, listened. In the years since, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Will Ferrell canvassed for Abrams. When she lost the gubernatorial election last November, Hollywood grew uneasy about the bills that might lead to an encore of 2016.
So this past March, when Governor Kemp sang the praises of the industry’s growth at the state’s annual “Film Day” at the Capitol, Sutton hoped it was a sign that he might follow in Deal’s footsteps. That day, Sutton assured reporters that Hollywood figures would not boycott Georgia as long as state lawmakers avoided “silly and non-inclusive” decisions. By the end of the month, state lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Georgia Statehouse had passed HB 481. When Georgia film industry workers asked Hollywood studios to oppose the bill before Kemp signed it, their calls went unanswered. And those studio executives refrained from weighing in until after Kemp signed HB 481. The swift blowback from Hollywood figures had forced Georgia industry boosters like Sutton into a more defensive posture, particularly as abortion-rights states sought to lure business from Georgia. Despite the efforts of those states, Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan told The Ringer he remains confident about the future of the state’s film industry. “Georgia was a very business-friendly state last year, before this bill passed,” Duncan said. “It continues to be a very business-friendly state today. I’m proud of that.”
Other women attending the summit had suggestions about what to do now: Independent filmmaker Chaun Pinkston encouraged the audience to simply keep working. Film PR consultant Saptosa Foster urged them to “communicate” the facts to counter the “knee-jerk reaction.” Like Coffee, scriptwriter Suzan Satterfield called for the development of homegrown “content creators” to make the industry more self-sufficient. But their cautious optimism couldn’t tame the room’s anxiety. Sutton, aware of the worst-case scenarios, turned to the rest of the panel with a pivotal question. “What is our crisis plan?”
Later on, Sutton answered her own question, revisiting her four-part plan for Georgia’s industry. The first two parts, bringing jobs to Georgia and training Georgians for those jobs, were well underway. So was the third component: the creation of more than 1,000 businesses, from prop houses to neon light manufacturers, to support productions. The most pivotal phase ahead, as Satterfield suggested, was the cultivation of content creators—one that could bring further investments to the state. “We need to attract producers and stars who can green-light things,” Sutton said. “We need to focus on the stars we have here, help them blow up to attract more talent, or we need to attract more into the city. We have Tyler Perry, Will Packer, a good solid 10 production companies. We need more.”
“We are at this critical stage,” Sutton concluded. “We do not want our knees to be cut off from under us. We need to preserve. We have to proceed. We have to continue with the plan.”
On an oppressively hot Friday the week before Independence Day, four dozen women clad in yellow “Stop the Bans” shirts stood in the shadow of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. Inside the downtown federal courthouse—the 26-story building that had played the part of a Lagos skyscraper in Captain America: Civil War—ACLU attorney Sean Young had just filed a lawsuit to block HB 481 on behalf of abortion clinics, doctors, and patients. Facing a row of TV cameras, Planned Parenthood Southeast president Staci Fox looked out at a small army of journalists and invoked the name of Georgia’s film and TV workers who continued to speak out against HB 481. “Georgia politicians heard from us,” Fox told reporters. “They just didn’t listen.”
When I asked an ACLU spokesperson whether any of the women there worked in the film industry, she could not say. Riney, for her part, had again tried to rally her colleagues to attend the press conference. But most had already committed to working on set for their latest production. “Trying to get ppl together on the fly is like wrangling cats,” she texted me that morning. Indeed, the small army of film workers that had flooded the Georgia State Capitol were nowhere to be found.
While reporters peppered Fox with questions, Riney was two miles away, helping a neighbor move furniture. In the days before, she had found other ways to promote the voices of Georgia’s film industry. Her union had just agreed to donate $25,000 to the ACLU’s legal fund. She’d helped create and spread the word about the Georgia Film Toolkit—a website that aggregated industry talking points and ways to stay involved, and directed people to sign an online petition titled “We are the women of the film & media industry in Georgia.” As of the Fourth of July, more than 6,400 people had signed it. Riney was one of them.
“To those who choose not to come to Georgia because of the actions of our government, we understand your reasoning,” the petition read. “But please know this: Georgia’s hardworking women and many men in this industry will continue to be the resistance from the inside. With our voices, our art, and our daily boots on the ground, we’ll keep working for the leadership we deserve. Your condemnation is understandable, but what we really need most is allies. Change is coming.”
The HB 481 debate has faded from the national headlines since the ACLU lawsuit was filed. As the organization’s lawyers await a key late-September hearing about a preliminary injunction—a decision that, while federal judges have granted it in states like Kentucky and Mississippi, Kemp’s lawyers say is unnecessary—the Hollywood of the South’s future remains the talk of the Georgia industry before the law’s potential enactment this January. During a recent real estate panel discussion, Ryan Millsap, CEO of Blackhall Studios, warned that Georgia would have lost more business as other cities, including Toronto and London, had more studio capacity. “If London had 1,000 more stages, we’d be dead,” said Millsap, who is planning to build a studio overseas. “We’re getting their runoff, and we’re getting the productions because [the other markets] don’t have space.” But not all are leaving. The Georgia Film Commission lists 39 productions—including Coming 2 America, Ozark (Season 3), and The Walking Dead (Season 10)—currently shooting in the state. And director Clint Eastwood is still committed to filming a biopic of Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongfully accused of the 1996 Olympics bombing, in Georgia. In a statement, Warner Bros. told The Wrap: “We have made the decision to tell this compelling story—based on real people and events—in the locations where it actually took place, which is in and around Atlanta.”
And in late July, as Riney’s time off neared its end, her phone rang again. It wasn’t a political organizer. This time, it was someone from Tyler Perry Studios, who had a simple question: Are you available to work? She received four more calls that week—a sign that her busiest months, August and September, would be no less busy than usual. “I feel reassured about work,” she said. She’s now working on the production for Coming 2 America.
Though the HB 481 saga had quieted down, the status of Hollywood in Georgia—and Riney’s professional prospects, along with many others—remains unresolved. Riney said she hopes that a new sense of awareness and solidarity will allow local film workers to keep speaking up and speaking out in a way that commands attention from politicians and producers alike.
“Marvel’s going to do what Marvel’s going to do, and Disney’s going to Disney,” Riney said. “If anything, I think this whole thing tested my theory that Atlanta has a strong arts community, a strong community of weirdos, and a strong community of people who make their own films. We don’t want to be the next Hollywood—or even Y’allywood. We’re trying to make something happen.”
Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories for newspapers, magazines, and digital outlets.