Georgia’s abortion-restricting “heartbeat bill” is putting stress on the state’s booming filmmaking industry and will be “tough for business,” a movie studio head told the Buckhead Business Association at a June 6 breakfast.
“This heartbeat bill has put some stress on the industry in ways that I’ve never seen before,” said Dan Rosenfelt, president of Doraville’s Third Rail Studios, which regularly rents its stages and facilities to major Hollywood productions. “…This year will be tough for business… I’m sure there will be a percentage of [film productions] that we don’t even hear about that just don’t show up.”
The hotly controversial law, signed earlier this year by Gov. Brian Kemp, criminalizes abortions in cases where a beat can be detected in fetal tissue that can develop into a heart and grants some individual legal rights to the fetus, among other provisions. The law does not take effect until January and an array of legal challenges are expected before then.
Several movie and TV stars have said they will boycott Georgia’s filmmaking scene, which is home to such multibillion-dollar franchises as Marvel’s superhero movies Some major production companies, including Disney and Netflix, have said they will consider withdrawing productions from the state if the law takes effect. But most current productions are continuing. Third Rail was among 15 Georgia movie business companies that wrote to Kemp last month seeking a meeting to discuss the law, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
At the June 6 breakfast, held at Maggiano’s Buckhead, Rosenfelt said he does not expect the law would result in immediate harm to Third Rail, because it has a long-term lease with Netflix to film any of its hundreds of productions. “So we’re set for a while and it’s not going to affect us, and that’s a nice thing,” he said.
But the heartbeat bill controversy is already affecting his business in other ways. In discussion with guests after the breakfast, Rosenfelt said he is interested in building a new studio in Savannah, but the abortion law controversy is making it hard to find financing, at least until the law gets “tied up in court.”
Rosenfelt is a movie industry veteran who got his first job as a location scout for M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 hit thriller “The Sixth Sense.” He has worked on Muppets productions for the Jim Henson Company and in development for George Clooney’s production company. He has been involved in the development of such films as “Argo,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “I Am Legend.”
Rosenfelt moved to Atlanta and opened Third Rail almost three years ago in Doraville’s Assembly redevelopment. Among the productions it has hosted is last year’s Dwayne Johnson sci-fi movie “Rampage.” Currently filming there is the Netflix comedy “Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters,” which is executive produced by Jenji Kohan, the creator of the hit “Orange Is the New Black.”
Rosenfelt said he met in Los Angeles last week with representatives of several major production companies, including Disney, Netflix and Marvel. He said they are all “concerned” about the abortion law, but largely watching how their actors and directors respond.
“The studios are bottom-line corporations… so while they may have something individually…to say about this bill, they want to come here and film here,” Rosenfelt said. “They’ve been enjoying their success filming here and they like filming in Georgia. But if an actor or director says to them, ‘Hey, I don’t want to go there,’ then they have to take that cue. They’re not going to force someone to go here.”
And not everyone will be vocal about that loss of business opportunities, Rosenfelt said. “The studios aren’t going to say, ‘Oh, so-and-so told me they don’t want to come.’ We just won’t hear about it,” he said.
Talking with elected officials about policy was not something he learned in film school, Rosenfelt said.
“I was in L.A. for 15 years. I never had to think about talking about my industry, selling my industry, keeping my industry alive,” he said.
There are a couple of pieces of good news about Georgia’s film industry, he said. The state tax incentives that have made Georgia so popular for filmmaking has resulted in the creation of an industry to an extent unique even in other states that have tried such incentives, he said. That includes about 30 filming studios in the metro Atlanta area – five of them purpose-built – and about 15 to 17 full film crews available. Those facilities resources continue to make the state attractive for filmmaking.
Also feeding the boom is the “content war” among ever-increasing streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and, soon, Disney and Apple. The unprecedented demand for new programming – Netflix produced 950 programs last year — is good news for places like Third Rail.
“There’s all those planes in the air – with content – and they need places to land,” Rosenfelt said. “There’s not enough stages in the world for Netflix alone right now.”
That’s part of the reason why many productions are continuing in Georgia despite the controversy, and also why the economic impact of losing the business could be big. Third Rail, Rosenfelt said, has a “master lease” deal with Netflix to stage any production it wants, and if the schedule falls through, allows for subleasing to other productions.
Rosenfelt also recently started a production company, Kid Opal, with the hopes of shepherding works by local screenwriters.