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Columbus wants to be a film hub. Could the ‘heartbeat bill’ affect city’s efforts?


Columbus pitched itself to the film world at the famed Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and in the months that followed, projects have come to the Chattahoochee Valley.

By the end of August, two films will have traveled Muscogee County shooting scenes. Bruce Willis came to town for “The Long Night,” and Vanna White is an executive producer for the coming-of-age rock ‘n’ roll comedy, “Electric Jesus,” that is expected to start filming here soon. The “Long Night” has received incentives from the new Columbus Film Fund, and “Electric Jesus” has applied for them.

The city’s film commission says more projects could be on the way as negotiations with companies continue.

2019 has been an exciting year, said Peter Bowden, the President and CEO of the city’s film commission and Visit Columbus.

Filming of the more recent movies here comes on the heels of investments made by the city, Columbus State University and other private partners over the past several years to train film crews and lure productions here.

But that work could be in jeopardy.

Georgia’s new abortion law could mean companies won’t film in the state. Many of the larger companies who shoot in Georgia like Netflix and Disney have said they would rethink investing in the state if the law goes into effect.

Several states across the nation have passed bills to ban abortion when a “heartbeat” is detected. Some conservative lawmakers — observing the realignment of the U.S. Supreme Court — see these bills as an avenue to possibly overturn Roe V. Wade, the case that gave women a constitutional right to choose to have an abortion.

Bowden said he hopes the state’s situation will “resolve itself” in the future.

“We don’t see anything affecting what we’re doing on the near horizon,” he said.

Columbus’ investment in film

Well before the state’s abortion law, dubbed the “heartbeat bill,” was passed and signed, Columbus was trying to take advantage of Georgia’s status as a filming hot spot through public-private partnerships.

Among those efforts was Columbus State University ramping up its program aimed at training and developing film crews that directors and producers need through the Georgia Film Academy. W.C. Bradley opened Flat Rock Studio, a large, state-of-the-art movie studio facility and home to CSU’s film program.

And a big, final piece was this year’s announcement of the $5 million film fund to provide incentives for productions to come here. Private donors raised $4.5 million, and the city provided the remaining $500,000, city officials said.

The Columbus Film Fund is meant to fund 10 film and/or television productions over the next three years. The Columbus Film Commission administers the grants, and the money is managed by the city’s economic development corporation. The goal is to space the projects out to make sure local crews can work on the productions, Bowden said.

“Ideally, what would happen is one project would end (and) the next one would be a couple of weeks away from starting so that crew stays in place so they can go basically from film to film,” he said.

A formula is used to determine how much a project could receive from the film fund, and the amount a project receives depends on its size. In some cases, companies could use these grants from the film fund alongside advantageous state incentives — up to 30% in tax credits for projects that spend $500,000 within the state, Bowden said.

“So far, it’s worked out,” he said.

The film commission is courting other projects. Negotiations are ongoing for nine films that have expressed an interest in shooting in Columbus. Budgets for those films is a combined $44 million, and the estimated local spend is over $13 million. The film fund’s estimated investment into those projects is $1.4 million, Bowden said.

“My office has been working with film for over a decade,” he said. “This is the first time there’s been this synergy with production.”

The abortion law and the film industry’s response

Several companies have already said they will not film in Georgia because of its new abortion law, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The law bans abortions when a “heartbeat” is detected — with some exceptions. 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. The law is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

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.

Some are staying in the state but donating funds to organizations fighting the law. J. J. Abrams and Jordan Peele of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” are donating all of their episodic fees to the state’s ACLU and Fair Fight Georgia, a nonprofit led by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, reports the Hollywood Reporter.

Still, there’s doubt over whether the abortion 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. Attorneys representing the state of Georgia told a federal judge this week that its new abortion law is “constitutional and justified.” The state’s attorneys want the lawsuit dismissed, the Associated Press reports.

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

Feature film and television productions spent $2.7 billion in Georgia, and 455 film and television projects were shot in the state during the 2018 fiscal year. The state estimated the projects generated a total economic impact of $9.5 billion, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Some economists, however, question the industry’s overall economic impact in the state.

Columbus is keeping an eye on those developments and conversations regarding filming and the abortion law, Bowden said.

“It’s really too early for us to have a comment on that,” he said of the threatened boycotts. “Our entertainment scout out in Hollywood ... keeps up abreast of whatever those conversations are right now. “

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