Georgia’s film and entertainment office is in a “wait and watch mode” following passage of a controversial abortion law by the General Assembly, but expectations are a years-long court battle over the legislation could stall potential economic damage to the booming industry, according to a recent presentation to the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce.

Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, gave a presentation at the June 20 meeting of the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce. (Dyana Bagby)

Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, spoke to the local chamber at its June 20 breakfast meeting. While her office is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the state’s law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, she did say if the bill goes into effect next year, it would be a “whole different ballgame.”

Thomas did not mention the bill that has some top Hollywood figures calling for boycotts of the state during her approximate 10-minute presentation, instead focusing on the 2008 tax credits that made the state the top choice to film such Marvel blockbusters as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Black Panther” and the AMC favorite “The Walking Dead.” She also declined to speak to the press after the meeting.

But Thomas was forced to respond to several questions, including the very first question, from meeting attendees about the impact of the anti-abortion bill signed into law May 7 by Gov. Brian Kemp. The law is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, but the ACLU has promised to sue the state.

“It’s kind of too early to tell,” Thomas told the crowd of some 30 people at the Delta Life Insurance building at 4370 Peachtree Road. “What we understand is we’ll probably be tied up in the court system for years and so we’re just going to have to wait and keep monitoring and see what happens. Right now, we’re still busy.”

Calls for boycotts of doing business in Georgia from some top film and TV producers and actors following the signing of the bill led to the loss of some projects, Thomas acknowledged. But she said the state’s approximate 75 studios are currently filled. There are 92,000 jobs tied to film and TV tied to Georgia, according to state officials.

Netflix continues to film in the state but said it would “rethink our entire investment in Georgia” if the bill goes into effect on Jan. 1, according to Variety magazine. Netflix productions in Georgia include “Stranger Things” and “Ozark.” The Motion Picture Association of America said it would monitor the Georgia case, noting similar legislation has been attempted in other states.

If the law does go into effect on Jan. 1, Thomas said it would be a “whole different ballgame” for the Georgia film and entertainment industry, but did not elaborate on what that meant.

Dan Rosenfelt, president of Doraville’s Third Rail Studios, which regularly rents its stages and facilities to major Hollywood productions, said during his talk at the June 6 breakfast meeting of the Buckhead Business Association that the bill “has put some stress on the industry in ways that I’ve never seen before.”

“…This year will be tough for business…,” he said. “I’m sure there will be a percentage of [film productions] that we don’t even hear about that just don’t show up.” But he also said Third Rail would likely not see an immediate affect due to the law because of its long-term lease with Netflix.

Thomas has worked for the state film office since 1996, first as a project manager and then a location scout for 12 years before being promoted to helm the office in 2011. Lee has worked on such films as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Blind Side,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil,” and “Zombieland.”

The state’s first film office was created in 1973 by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. After seeing the whopping financial success of “Deliverance,” filmed in Georgia, Carter wanted to lure Hollywood to his home state, Thomas explained. The film office continued to grow, bringing in big-name productions such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “My Cousin Vinny.”

In 2008, when the General Assembly approved a 30% tax credit to production companies, the state quickly became a favorite spot for filming. From 1973 until 2008, the state’s economic impact was $5 billion; in 2018, the economic impact was nearly double that at $9.5 billion, Thomas said.

“What had been a totally location-based business is now a tax incentives business,” she said.

Brookhaven Councilmember Joe Gebbia asked about trend of the entertainment industry’s economic impact according to a chart Thomas showed – in 2015 the total was more than $6 billion, in 2016 it jumped to $7.2 billion. But in 2017 and 2018, the number stayed the same at $9.5 billion.

“Have we peaked? Do you have a prediction of where this is going?” Gebbia asked.

Lee Thomas touted the state’s tax incentives to the film and entertainment industry, but answered questions about how the controversial abortion bill could hurt the industry’s economic impact. (Dyana Bagby)

Thomas said this year’s numbers aren’t expected until mid-August, but she said they could show they remain the same or even go down a little bit. State legislation, such as previous years’ “religious freedom” bills and this year’s abortion bill do affect the film industry’s economic impact, she said.

“[W]hen you have something out there in the legislature it hurts us because shows choose wherever they’re going and they can do it very quickly; they can move very quickly,” Thomas said.

“We all have to continue to earn their business,” she added. “It’s not like we got it [the business] and it’s there.

“So, we had legislation out there last year that could have potentially hurt us … and so we lost a little business from that. And now it’s the same thing,” she said.

The state film office postponed its popular Hollywood event to thank and tout its industry, which was set for May 22, days after Kemp signed the bill into law. Thomas said tentative plans are to move the event to late November.

“This is our biggest networking event of the year,” she said. “It’s really a thank you.”

She was also asked if the governor was doing anything to try to temper Hollywood’s negative reaction to the bill.

She said he supported the 30% tax credit while running for office and since his election.

“And that is the thing we are most protective of, so we have that going for us,” Thomas said.

“Beyond that … I have not seen a formal statement.”

Thomas also explained her office mostly speaks with those handling the money on movie and film budgets, not the directors or producers as they once did, another potential advantage in the state’s tax incentives remaining the key reason for selecting Georgia to produce entertainment.

“It used to be we only dealt with the directors and producers because they had all the power. Now it’s reversed and people making the budgets and saying where the money is going the furthest drive where projects are going,” she said.

But there are powerful actors who are also producers and they can have significant influence in where their business goes, she added.

“I don’t think any of the major studios want to be in the position of being told where to go by actors necessarily, but when you have actors with lot of power and may be producers as well on a project, they may have sway,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office issued a statement when asked about Thomas’ comments that said the industry continues to do well and touting its tax incentives, but made no mention of the abortion law.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.