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Georgia's abortion ban forces political reckoning among TV and film workers

Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

SENOIA, Ga. -- Zombies lurk beyond the train tracks. They have been here for years, working under lights, swatting mosquitoes, bringing eerie charm to streets of gothic homes and magnolia. Tourists come from as far away as Japan to glimpse the set of "The Walking Dead," which has become a neighbor in this town of Bible school classes and soft-serve ice cream.

The show, like many film and TV productions, was drawn to Georgia over the last decade by big tax breaks. Legislators were welcoming and the locals, including those in Senoia, adjusted to shooting schedules and the generally liberal inclinations of thousands of set designers, prop masters, actors, makeup artists and others who descended from California, New York and other film states.

J.D. Schwalm was one of them. He brought his family and most of his Los Angeles special effects company to Atlanta in 2016. Since then he has won an Academy Award, patented a car cannon and learned not to talk politics at barbecues. But threats of a Hollywood boycott over Georgia's new antiabortion law have upset genteel conversation and exposed the visceral divide between the entertainment industry and Southern conservatism.

"It's a cultural struggle between faith and finance," said the Rev. John Talley, pastor of the First Senoia Baptist Church. "These movie companies were given generous financial breaks. We're grateful for their economic stimulus. But as a Christian, I value the unborn child more than Hollywood."

That kind of stark declaration has forced Schwalm, who is working on "Conjuring 3," to a reckoning over differing opinions on abortion and fears by entertainment workers here that a boycott will take their jobs: "Is this issue enough for me to leave Georgia? My kids and wife love it here. There's a lot of work. It hurts me that the state passed this bill. But leaving won't change it. And you're not going to change Georgia from Los Angeles. You have to stay and have dialogue."

Kara Schaub has similar sentiments. She landed here from Los Angeles to be a set decorator. "I keep my crazy feminism at home. I don't wear my Wonder Woman punching Donald Trump in the face T-shirt," she said. "But little by little Georgia is becoming more of a purple state, and the film industry is contributing to that. I never felt I could put down roots in L.A. I rent a four-bedroom house here for the same price as my old 400-square-foot apartment in North Hollywood."

 

Abortion has long been one of America's most combative political and moral issues. Much of the furor around the Georgia law, which forbids abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, is emblematic of wider battles between left and right on immigration, healthcare, guns and race in a nation increasingly polarized since President Trump took office.

Evangelicals portray Hollywood as an elitist carpetbagger peddling bankrupt morals. But a number of those in the entertainment industry here are conservative, including crew members who support Trump and a set worker who named his dog after the president. Trump won Georgia with 50.4% of the vote in 2016. Two years later, though, progressive TV and film transplants helped the state nearly elect Democrat Stacey Abrams as its first black female governor.

Liberals celebrated Abrams' campaign as a sign that Old South attitudes were succumbing to younger generations in a state where film crews and production companies, including Tyler Perry Studios, are more diverse than in Hollywood. But liberals were whipsawed last month when newly elected Republican Gov. Brian Kemp rallied his conservative base by signing one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

Such a landscape blurs assumptions on both sides and reveals the fissures running through Georgia politics. It leaves film and TV workers troubled over the state's conservative legacy. They're also angry at calls for boycotts by celebrities and threats by studio leaders, including Ted Sarandos at Netflix and Bob Iger at Walt Disney Co., to stop production, which could jeopardize jobs while further emboldening right-leaning politicians. Abrams opposes a boycott for those reasons.

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