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Disney threatens to stop filming in Georgia if anti-gay bill becomes law

Delivering a potentially serious blow to one of the fastest growing production hubs in the country, Walt Disney Co. is threatening to no longer film in the state of Georgia if an anti-gay bill is signed into law there.

The Free Exercise Protection Act is on the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal, who has until May 3 to decide whether to veto it. Hollywood business totaling billions of dollars could hang in the balance.

The measure, passed by Georgia lawmakers March 16, would offer protections to faith-based entities that refuse to provide services that they say violate their beliefs. If it becomes law, the proposed legislation would have the effect of beefing up legal safeguards for opponents of same-sex marriage.

Critics say the Free Exercise Protection Act promotes discrimination.

“Disney and Marvel are inclusive companies, and although we have had great experiences filming in Georgia, we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law,” a spokesman for Burbank-based Disney said.

Disney, the world's largest entertainment company, is throwing its weight around on this issue by threatening a boycott, but its rival studios are not following suit. So far, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Entertainment have not said they would stop filming in the state if the Free Exercise Protection Act becomes law.

Some of those companies declined to comment or did not respond to requests for interviews, while others referred The Times to a statement from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the trade organization representing the studios. “We are confident that Governor Deal will not allow a discriminatory bill to become law in Georgia,” said the statement from Vans Stevenson, the MPAA senior vice president of state government affairs.

“The rest of the industry has been relatively silent thus far,” said Joseph Chianese, executive vice president of EP Financial Solutions, a production incentive consultant. “Disney being the first and strongest voice I believe is going to have a rippling effect. I'm proud and happy that Disney was the first — they are the 800-pound gorilla.”

Georgia has become a haven for movie and television production because of attractive tax incentives offered to studios that film there. Unlike California's film tax credit program, Georgia's offering is especially enticing because it allows studios and film producers to offset actors' salaries, which can be a major contributor to the cost of productions.

If it were signed into law, the Free Exercise Protection Act could undermine Georgia's intense effort to entice more Hollywood companies to do business in the state. Last year, Deal visited Los Angeles to urge the industry to continue to film in the Peach State, hosting an event called “Georgia Night in L.A.” at the Sunset Tower Hotel.

Chianese said that Georgia's incentive program is “one of the strongest in the country.”

“I think people are hopeful the governor will make the right choice,” he said. “Georgia has invested in this business, and they've made a real strong commitment to it.”

Deal could not be reached for comment.

Recent Disney projects to shoot in Georgia have included the Marvel Studios-produced “Ant-Man” and “Captain America: Civil War”; “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” is currently in production there.

During Georgia's fiscal 2015, 248 film and television productions shot in the Peach State, representing $1.7 billion in spending there, according to a statement last year by the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Those film and TV projects generated an economic impact of more than $6 billion during the fiscal year extending from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015.

The department, which promotes the state as a filming destination, declined to comment about Disney's threatened boycott. A spokeswoman for the department said it does not comment on pending legislation.

The state's production economy got a boost in 2014, when England's Pinewood Group began operating a large studio facility outside Atlanta. It has attracted a number of high-profile productions, among them “Captain America: Civil War,” which comes out in May.

“Ant-Man” was the first movie to shoot at Pinewood Atlanta Studios, which includes 11 sound stages on 700 acres in Fayetteville. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the production of “Ant-Man” spent $106 million in the state and employed 3,579 Georgians.

Pinewood Group, based in Iver Heath, England, said in a statement that the company “actively promotes equal opportunities and diversity in the workplace.” Pinewood did not respond to a question about whether it would call on Deal to veto the bill.

AMC Networks — the New York owner of several cable channels, including AMC, and IFC Films — called on Deal to veto the Free Exercise Protection Act. AMC's hit show “The Walking Dead” is filmed mainly in Georgia.

“As a company, AMC Networks believes that discrimination of any kind is reprehensible,” the company
said in a statement. “We
applaud Governor Deal's leadership in resisting a previous version of this divisive legislation and urge him to reject the current version as well.”

In a statement, the president of the LGBT-focused civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign praised Disney's action and criticized proponents of the bill.

“It's appalling that anti-LGBT activists in Georgia are trying to pass legislation creating an explicit right to discriminate against LGBT Americans,” said Chad Griffin, who called on Hollywood to stop making film and TV shows in Georgia at a gala the group held in L.A. last week. “We urge other studios, major corporations, and fair-minded Georgians to continue speaking out and urging Gov. Deal to veto this heinous piece of legislation sitting on his desk.”

It's not just Hollywood that has attempted to pressure Deal. Last week the NFL said that the proposed legislation could cost Atlanta a shot at hosting the Super Bowl later this decade. And companies including Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, both based in Atlanta, joined hundreds of other businesses who have come out in opposition to the measure.

daniel.miller@latimes.com

Twittter: @DanielNMiller

Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:44 p.m.: Updates with additional details and background.

1:01 p.m.: This article was updated with statements from Pinewood Group and AMC Networks.

11:09 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the size and scope of Georgia's film production economy.

This article was originally published at 9:55 a.m.

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