Entertainment

HBO. Netflix. The ‘heartbeat’ bill. Will film in Macon change after a booming 2019?

Georgia’s Heartbeat Bill: What you need to know

Georgia's The Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, better known as the Heartbeat Bill, would restrict abortion access and legality. Here is what you need to know.
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Georgia's The Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, better known as the Heartbeat Bill, would restrict abortion access and legality. Here is what you need to know.

It’s almost two-thirds of the way through 2019, but Macon has already seen more film cameras and crews on its streets than it has in recent years.

But that could change in the future if Georgia’s newest abortion law takes effect.

In 2017, there was only one major studio production filming in town. The same for 2018. But 2019 has been different. HBO and Netflix are some of the companies that worked on projects here.

Here’s what’s been shot so far, according to Aaron Buzza, vice president of development at Visit Macon.

Two major films: “Zombieland: Doubletap” and Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy” which — according to Atlanta Magazine — was shot under the codename “Ivan.”

Two television episodes for HBO’s “Watchmen.” Another television episode is set to film in Macon this year.

A television pilot

A couple of independent films

A documentary

“It’s been a very busy year, especially compared to the past couple of years,” he said.

Directors have had nothing but good things to say about the city, Buzza said, and the Macon Film Festival kicked off Aug. 15 with Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe as the event’s featured guest.

A focus for the event is women’s involvement in film, Buzza said. He also sits on the festival’s board.

“Our prime goal is to get people here,” he said. “Get them to stay. Get them to enjoy not only the festival but the community and spend the entire weekend while they are here.”

Georgia’s new abortion law, though, could mean companies won’t film in Georgia. Signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in early May, the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act prevents abortion when a “heartbeat” is detected. There are some exceptions to the law.

A “heartbeat” could be detected as early as six weeks. Most women discover they are pregnant between weeks four and seven, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Georgia’s new abortion law is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Several companies have said they will not film in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Some, who had planned to film in Georgia, looked elsewhere. Time Magazine reported in late May that an Amazon Studios drama, “The Power,” was considering Savannah as a location but pulled out after Kemp signed the bill.

Other big companies are waiting to see how things play out.

Netflix is working with the ACLU to fight the law, NBC News reports. Disney, WarnerMedia, Viacom, AMC Networks, CBS and Showtime said in statements to national media outlets that the companies would monitor the situation and reevaluate its involvement in the state if the new law took effect.

“If the law takes effect in Georgia or elsewhere, these may not be viable locations for our future production,” CBS and Showtime said in a statement in May.

Studios and stars have made their feelings known, too. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who shot “Hillbilly Elegy” throughout Georgia and in Macon, told the Hollywood Reporter in May that they almost didn’t shoot in the state but would boycott Georgia if the abortion law takes effect.

“We felt we could not abandon the hundreds of women, and men, whose means of support depend on this production – including those who directly contribute on the film, and the businesses in the community that sustain the production,” they said. “We see Gov. Kemp’s bill as a direct attack on women’s rights, and we will be making a donation to the ACLU to support their battle against this oppressive legislation. Should this law go into effect in January, we will boycott the state as a production center.”

There’s doubt over whether the law will take effect. “Heartbeat” bills have been challenged in courts across the nation. A federal judge in Kentucky prevented that state’s law from taking effect earlier this year. Judges struck down Iowa and North Dakota’s fetal heartbeat laws in recent years. Several other states passed similar abortion laws this year. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit and seeks to prevent Georgia’s law from taking effect.

But if the law stands, it could have wide-ranging economic consequences.

Feature film and television production generated a total economic impact of $9.5 billion in Georgia for the 2018 fiscal year. In all, 455 film and television productions were shot in the state, and $2.7 billion were spent directly in Georgia, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

The two feature films that came to Macon this year spent over $1.5 million in the community, Buzza said.

What effect would the law have on filming in Macon?

“At this point, I’m not certain I have enough information to have a really good opinion,” Buzza said. “Everybody that I have been speaking to has sort of said, ‘We are just kind of waiting to see what happens,’” he said. “It would be difficult to have a specific opinion. I’m going to follow what I am hearing from people in the industry.”

If the abortion law goes into effect, Macon’s approach to attracting productions likely wouldn’t change.

“We would maintain what it is we are doing. It’s very hard to say — that’s not entirely my call to make, either,” he said.

Nick Wooten is the Southern Trends and Culture reporter for McClatchy’s South region. He is based in Columbus, Georgia at the Ledger-Enquirer but his work also appears in The (Macon) Telegraph and The Sun Herald in Biloxi.Before joining McClatchy, he worked for The (Shreveport La.) Times covering city government and investigations. He is a graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
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