Hollywood’s liberal leanings have long put it at odds with the Republican party. But at the same time, and for most of its existence, its male-dominated, casting-couch culture hasn’t made it the friendliest to women or certain progressive ideals. Now, just as the entertainment industry seeks a path forward from the reckoning forced by the #MeToo movement, it finds itself taking on a key role in an abortion fight in Georgia.
Major production houses are threatening to leave the state, which is dependent on their business, should a highly restrictive abortion bill take effect there. It’s clear that this wouldn’t be good for Georgia's economy, but it’s also high time Hollywood stand up for the rights and safety of its female workers.
The television and film industry shot a record 455 productions in Georgia last year, including Walt Disney Co.’s “Avengers: Endgame” – the second-biggest grossing film of all time and one of the most expensive movies ever made – as well as AMC Networks Inc.’s “The Walking Dead” and Netflix Inc.’s “Stranger Things.” All that work generated $9.5 billion for the economy and $2.7 billion in direct spending in the state, according to then-Governor Nathan Deal. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates the industry supported more than 92,000 jobs in Georgia and was responsible for $4.6 billion in wages.
The controversial legislation signed earlier this month by Deal’s successor, fellow Republican Brian Kemp, would take effect in 2020 and ban abortions once a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat – about six weeks into a pregnancy – with exceptions only in cases of medical emergency, or rape or incest in which a police report was filed. It will almost assuredly face legal challenges. Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union have already filed a lawsuit challenging neighboring state Alabama’s near-total ban on abortions, and ACLU leaders said the group expects to mount a similar fight in Georgia. After Netflix this week became the first major production company to threaten boycotting the state, its chief content officer Ted Sarandos said the company would team up with the ACLU with respect to any action in Georgia.(2)
Disney and its CEO Bob Iger joined Netflix Wednesday in threatening to stop filming in the state. He had this to say on the subject during an interview he gave as part of the opening of the new Star Wars Galaxies Edge attraction at Disneyland:
If it becomes law, it’ll be very difficult to produce there – I rather doubt we will. I think many people who work for us would not want to work there, and we’ll have to heed their wishes.
Iger’s remarks seemed to help break the industry’s silence, with AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia (parent of HBO, Warner Bros. and Atlanta-based CNN), Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, CBS Corp. and its Showtime division, AMC Networks, Sony Pictures and Viacom Inc. all saying they’d reevaluate doing projects in Georgia. Warner Bros. is currently shooting “The Conjuring 3” there, while Netflix is filming season three of “Ozark.”
It’s an interesting time for Hollywood. The entertainment world’s seemingly unified stance on the Georgia abortion law comes just as it’s starting to move beyond the allegations that detailed an entrenched pattern of sexual misconduct and inequality against women that tarnished the industry’s reputation. The revelations toppled the careers of some powerful men, such as former CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves and film producer Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly and egregiously abused the influence they wielded over scores of women’s careers.
Now, after nearly two years of headlines featuring a revolving list of Hollywood elites “… Accused of Sexual Harassment” and victims having to divulge every gross detail of their experiences, the story coming out of Hollywood is starting to shift into one of female empowerment. That is something to celebrate, even if it is business sense as much as ethics driving the efforts.
The media giants mentioned above, each one notably led by a man, together employ more than half a million people, and that’s not even including actors and other talent on contract for specific productions.(4) As studios look to respond to audiences’ demands for more diverse representation on the big and small screens, they know that hiring and casting women could actually pose a challenge in places actively looking to restrict women’s reproductive rights. As it is, Hollywood has its work cut out for it in fixing its gender and power imbalance. Last year, women comprised 40% of all speaking characters in broadcast, cable and streaming programs, a decline from 2017, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. Worse, only 27% of key behind-the-scenes roles – creators, directors, editors, etc. – were filled by women, and more than two-thirds of programs employed five or fewer women for such positions.
The Center’s stat that gets at me most is this: Male characters were more likely to be identified by their (fictional) occupational status and to be seen working, whereas female characters were more likely to play “personal life-oriented roles,” and even when they were in work environments, they were less likely to actually be working. By perpetuating sexist views on camera, we’re also doing so in the real world. Moving away from these stereotypes is one way the industry can subtly but meaningfully shape society, and perhaps even our political discourse, for the better.
The anti-Trump rhetoric in Hollywood has a tendency to rub lots of Americans the wrong way. A more effective way for the entertainment industry to be a leader in furthering and protecting women’s rights is by hiring and promoting more of them, committing to zero-tolerance in instances of sexual harassment, changing the way women are portrayed on screen – and pulling their dollars from places undermining those efforts. The world is literally watching for its cue.
(1) Planned Parenthood receives funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg News's parent company.
(2) Of course, not all of their business units operate in the entertainment industry.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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