SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– One of Wilmington’s top competitors for attracting productions, Georgia is currently facing political backlash that could damage its film industry, resembling the tarring effect House Bill 2 had on North Carolina’s own film scene.
Signed in 2016 by then-Gov. Pat McCrory — who announced a Senate 2022 run this week — HB2 barred local governments from enacting non-discrimination ordinances. The nicknamed “bathroom bill” also required people to use public restrooms that matched their birth sex.
Once HB2 passed, Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, recalled noticing fewer and fewer productions expressing interest in North Carolina over a span of months.
Inquiries from productions dropped by about 50% to 75%, and the amount of money locally spent on projects was cut in half.
“Eventually, we kind of noticed, like, ‘OK, the phone’s not ringing as much,’” Griffin said.
When he’d visit Los Angeles for a trade show or an event, people would bring up HB2 in conversations.
“You knew it was sort of on the radar; you knew it was something that they were obviously paying attention to,” Griffin said.
Griffin doesn’t recall any productions immediately pulling out of the state as Will Smith’s film “Emancipation” did this past week in Georgia. The movie, valued at $120 million, was scheduled to start rolling in June. Upon passage of new controversial voting laws, the “slave drama” made plans to move to New Orleans, according to multiple media outlets.
Late last month, Georgia passed the voting legislation along party lines. Critics argue the new rules target Black voters, while supporters say it protects elections. The bill requires ID for anyone seeking a mail-in ballot, will reduce the number of drop-off boxes and prohibit non-election workers from handing out water or food outside the polls.
It’s not Georgia’s first run-in with boycotts. Two years ago, some studios threatened to stop coming to the state if it enacted the proposed “heartbeat bill,” which would outlaw an abortion as soon as a heartbeat is detectable. A federal judge struck it down as unconstitutional.
The Wilmington Regional Film Commission has not seen a noticeable uptick in projects coming from Georgia. It may be too soon to tell if the voting laws one state down will produce much impact, Griffin suspects.
In general, Wilmington regularly contends with Georgia towns and cities for films, especially those that call for small-town settings or coastal backdrops.
However, the film incentive is usually the deciding factor when selecting a location. North Carolina offers 25% rebates, but only up to $7 million is available for each feature-length film or made-for-TV movie. Meanwhile, Georgia offers some of the most generous tax credits in the world, with no cap.
Although it doesn’t feature the same southern scenery that North Carolina offers, New Jersey does tout a similar tax-credit program to Georgia. In the wake of the voting law’s passage, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy took advantage, penning a letter to Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. condemning the election law. The note also reminded the companies of the state’s 30% rebate on film projects.
Georgia or New Jersey would return roughly $60 million for a $200-million film.
“So are they going to come to Wilmington because they can get $7 [million] when in Georgia, they can get $60?” Griffin said. “Chances are they would probably look at places that have a larger incentive.”
Still, Griffin suggested Hollywood East is holding strong. Productions are ramping up ever since some of the stricter Covid-19 regulations eased. Plus, House Bill 2 was partially overturned in March 2017, largely in response to the public outcry and backlash from companies.
Some projects continued to steer clear of the Tar Heel State as House Bill 142 maintained the ban on local anti-discrimination ordinances. About three months ago, those remnants of HB2 expired.
“We’re back in the discussions once again; people are hearing about Wilmington and hearing about other projects that are coming in,” Griffin said. “I think more than anything that’s going to work in our favor, just the fact that we’re kind of a known entity, again.”
Recent political headlines, though, are reminiscent of 2016. Up to eight bills concerning the transgender community are poised to mimic HB2 and may threaten the progress made by the film industry thus far.
The N.C. General Assembly is reviewing the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” which aims to keep transgender girls off female sports teams in school. The “Youth Health Protection Act” would make it illegal for doctors to help teenagers transition and would require school employees to “out” students who identify as a different gender to their parents.
It’s something Griffin said he will be paying attention to. If the phone stops ringing, he’ll know why.
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