The film industry can be a driving force behind the corporate boycott of states with religious freedom legislation — to a point.
By Jared Keller
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
It’s been almost two weeks since PayPal withdrew its plans for a new corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the state’s discriminatory “bathroom” bill, touching off a wave of corporate boycotts against similar legislation across the country. As a result, it seems lawmakers are starting to feel the burn.
The Guardianreports that the Greater Raleigh Convention Center has lost nearly $2.4 million in bookings as a result of cancellations from popular artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, and Ringo Starr. Sixteen more bookings, valued at an estimated $44 million, are apparently “in jeopardy.” And that’s just the beginning, according to Greater Raleigh Convention Center CEO Denny Edwards, who told the Guardian that the boycott has thrown the city’s thriving conference business into shambles. “There’s going to be some long-term effect, and there’s a concern within North Carolina about the greater impact and how much damage this is doing to the wider economy,” Edwards added.
It’s not just a few concerts that lawmakers should worry about. On the heels of PayPal’s withdrawal from the city, Deutsche Bank put plans to hire an additional 250 staffers for its Cary, North Carolina, complex “on hold” over the controversy. Major industrial companies like Dow Chemical and Biogen have similarly voiced their concerns over the anti-LGBT legislation, as have technology companies like Google, Apple, and IBM. Even boycotts from relatively mundane industries may have a long-term impact on the state’s economy. CBS News reports that a boycott of North Carolina’s massive semi-annual furniture market in High Point could translate into a loss of more than $100 million for the state’s furniture manufacturers, who employ about 14,000 workers.
But it’s Hollywood that might hold the key to change in North Carolina. For proof, look to Georgia, where similar boycotts likely played at least some role in Governor Nathan Deal’s veto in March of House Bill 757, a “religious freedom” bill similar to North Carolina’s much-derided “bathroom bill.” The decision came on the heels of boycotting threats from hugely influential movie studios like Disney and Marvel. Georgia, as it turns out, is the third most popular filming location in the country, with an industry that’s grown from a mere $250 million annually in 2007 to a whopping $5 billion in 2014 on the backs of Marvel hits like Ant-Man.
Imagine if film studios decided to flex their muscles in North Carolina.
In 2015 alone, production companies spent $1.7 billion on 248 projects, including the mega-popular The Walking Dead. (As to why Georgia attracts so many production companies and movie studios, look no further than the state’s controversial tax credit system.) Atlanta’s Office of Entertainment estimates that “75 percent of filming takes place in the city, meaning it keeps 75 percent of the 77,900 jobs and $3.8 billion in wages the Motion Picture Association of America … attributes to the new business,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
If you want to understand how effective these corporate boycotts are, just imagine if film studios decided to flex their muscles in North Carolina, the epicenter of the national backlash over “religious freedom” bills. According to CBS affiliate WNCN, film productions spent somewhere around $300 million in North Carolina in 2014. That’s revenue the state is eager to grow after a shaky 2015, when Raleigh alienated production companies by replacing its established tax incentive program with a smaller grant system. Productions fled the state, sending Raleigh into a panic. After all, the 400-something productions filmed in the state employed between 90 and 95 percent locally. The new grant program set for this year would provide up to $30 million in tax incentives, a considerable drop from the $60 million in 2014.
To be clear: Film studios exercise control over a $300 million industry that provides hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs across North Carolina. By contrast, special interests have only spent $18.5 million influencing state elections since 2012, according to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies. Even outside spending on Senate and Congressional races in the 2016 election has totaled barely $1 million, according to Open Secrets. In politics, money talks, and corporations have a much louder megaphone than any lobbyist or political action committee could hope for.
That said, it’s not like Hollywood can exercise its corporate clout in states that aren’t so dependent on film production for revenue and economic growth. Salon’s Nico Lang points out that Mississippi, which passed its own “religious freedom” bill and incurred a similar backlash earlier in April, ranks 51st in the nation economically (behind even Washington, D.C.), and doesn’t host a single Fortune 500 company. Even when it comes to potential film revenue, lawmakers in Jackson likely won’t be cowed by threats from Disney because “there isn’t a lot of business to threaten to pull,” Lang writes:
Although “The Help” was famously filmed in Jackson’s Fondren district, very few TV and film productions have been shot in Mississippi. “Same Kind of Different As Me,” starring Renee Zellweger and Jon Voight, just wrapped, as did “The Hollars,” directed by John Krasinski of “The Office.” Both were low-profile and low-budget. According to The Wrap, Mississippi’s film production office doesn’t list a single upcoming feature on its calendar. Heavy-hitters like Disney and Marvel have yet to come out against Mississippi’s bill, and neither has any other major studio.
There’s something vaguely problematic about corporations effectively blackmailing states into passing (or vetoing) legislation on social issues unrelated to their core businesses. As I wrote following Deal’s veto of Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill, it’s somewhat problematic for liberals who rail against the flood of campaign spending unleashed by Citizens United to cheer when a corporation strong-arms a state into adopting a broader piece of social legislation; it’s a double-edged sword that could easily turn against them should corporate interests find a new revenue stream to focus their resources on.
But what’s clear is that corporate power, like most business, is limited by markets, and while Hollywood may not be able to put an end to Georgia’s anti-LGBT initiatives, the jangling of the corporate coin purse in Raleigh could bring North Carolina’s bathroom drama to a curtain.