April 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Hollywood steps up its role in Georgia Senate races

Filmmaker Lisa Cortés’ work in Georgia wasn’t finished after the state went to Joe Biden in the presidential election.

The New York-based codirector of “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a documentary made with Liz Garbus about Stacey Abrams and voting rights, traveled to Augusta, Atlanta, Eastman and Cuthbert to film get-out-the-vote commercials in anticipation of the state’s U.S. Senate runoff elections.

Through the advocacy group Black Voters Matter, she met and interviewed a grandmother in Augusta who took her grandson out to vote in November for the first time. Struck by their intergenerational story, she included them in a 60-second spot that also featured Black Voters Matter cofounder LaTosha Brown.

For Cortés, creating the videos was a way to help give voters, especially those in rural communities, the tools to make sure their votes count.

“There’s nothing like meeting the people and hearing their stories,” Cortés told The Times in an interview. “These spots are in the voice of a community that … often does not get a spotlight but is part of the real change that we saw here.”

Cortés, who executive produced 2009’s “Precious,” is among the many entertainment industry professionals who have been working with activists to turn out voters in the two races that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Artists and celebrities from Hollywood, New York and Georgia itself have been participating in phone banking, text campaigns and fundraising efforts. In recent weeks, “Little Fires Everywhere” actress Kerry Washington, the Roots drummer Questlove and “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown joined voting rights advocates at virtual video events.

Will Ferrell and Georgia native Ed Helms performed a video table read of the Christmas film “Elf” with members of the original cast — including Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen — to raise money for the Democratic Party of Georgia. Lin-Manuel Miranda and other original “Hamilton” cast members gave a live show online to fundraise for the Democratic candidates.

“The saturation is to the point that it’s not really surprising the people you see anymore,” said Seth Clark, a Democratic strategist and county commissioner-elect in Macon.

Hollywood has long served as a financial booster for Democratic candidates, with industry titans like DreamWorks Animation cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg, media mogul Haim Saban and former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing organizing fundraising events for liberal causes. But the heightened stakes of the Georgia runoffs, which have the potential to flip control of the Senate to the Democrats, have drawn an unusual level of interest from an entertainment industry that has deep and growing ties to Georgia.

Donors with ties to the industry have contributed $3.3 million to the Georgia Senate candidates and two major party-affiliated committees through mid-December, according to fundraising disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. Nearly $2.7 million was contributed directly to the candidates, a notable haul since individual donors are legally forbidden from giving more than $5,600 per candidate. The remaining money was contributed to two party groups that could receive larger donations.

These numbers — based on itemized filings of contributions greater than $200 as well as donors’ self-identification of their jobs — are certainly an undercount of industry money being spent on the contests, which are shattering fundraising records. The findings do not include contributions to several other outside groups active in the races or donations made in the final three weeks of the contest.

Big names among the donors include director Steven Spielberg, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, singer John Legend and comedian Amy Schumer. About 90% of the money was donated to Democrats.

In addition to donating money, industry heavyweights are hosting fundraisers, urging their fans to volunteer in the Georgia election and trying to turn out the vote for the Jan. 5 election.

A screenwriter couldn’t have written a tenser nail-biter. Democrats would have to prevail in two races to give incoming Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. In one, Democrat Raphael Warnock faces off with Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. In the other race, Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff takes on Republican Sen. David Perdue.

The race comes to a head as Georgia becomes an increasingly important hub of production for film and TV studios. Universal Pictures recently wrapped its adaptation of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” in the Atlanta area. Trilith Studios in Fayetteville, formerly known as Pinewood Atlanta Studios, has served as the soundstage home for many of Marvel Studios’ superhero movies for Walt Disney Co.

For some top-level producers, Georgia is home. Tyler Perry has a sprawling Atlanta studio that was among the first facilities to restart production during the pandemic by creating a “camp quarantine” bubble. Will Packer, known for producing “Girls Trip” and “What Men Want,” is also based in Atlanta.

Packer has been campaigning for Warnock while getting back into production on projects including two unscripted shows filming in the state. He recently spoke at a drive-in-rally in Clayton County featuring a performance by Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty put on by advocacy groups Progress Georgia and When We All Vote.

Based in Georgia since 1996, Packer said he’s seen Hollywood start to pay more attention to the state’s politics in recent years, including when Ossoff made a run for Congress in 2017 and was defeated by Karen Handel.

“As someone who’s on the ground hiring Georgians, I have a personal stake in the people here,” Packer said. “I have a personal stake making sure the right voices are representing them.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia announced this week it will be joined by the cast of HBO’s hit series “The Wire” for a get-out-the-vote rally in Clayton County on Saturday.

Musicians have also been getting involved, including people in Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. Rapper Mickey Factz, who appears in the Radha Blank film “The 40-Year-Old Version,” moved from New York to Atlanta in October with his wife and baby and quickly caught up with the Senate races.

He recorded a song, “Georgia State of Mind,” and taped a spot for BET’s Reclaim Your Vote campaign.

“Artists standing up within their communities is big,” he said. “In this election, because it’s such a small scale, every vote counts.”

Political differences between Hollywood and the South have at times made for a complicated relationship.

The entertainment industry has been moving film and TV productions to Georgia because of the lucrative tax incentives the state offers studios. Georgia’s tax credit program covers up to 30% of the money spent on production in the state (20% plus a 10% bonus for promoting the state).

After Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected in May 2019, Netflix said it would “rethink” its film and TV investments in the state. Disney’s then-CEO Bob Iger — also a major Democratic donor whose name has been floated as a potential ambassador to China — followed by saying it would be “very difficult” to continue filming there if the bill became law. It never did.

The dustup unfolded three years after studios came out in force against anti-gay legislation in Georgia. Walt Disney Co., Netflix Inc. and others threatened to stop producing in the state if it enacted a law that would have allowed companies to deny services to people on religious grounds. Georgia’s then-governor, Nathan Deal, vetoed the bill.

It’s unclear how much the presence of the entertainment industry in Georgia has influenced the state’s politics. Crew members on productions tend to be unionized and thus traditionally more Democratic, and some experts say having productions in the state may have played a slight role in turning Georgia purple.

“Georgia is changing, and we’re attracting people from around the country, including from California, and they’re bringing their partisanship with them,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

However, experts say the shift has more to do with suburban voters in growing metropolitan areas and young people in burgeoning fields such as technology, rather than film, TV and music.

Many also credit Abrams’ voter registration campaign through her organization Fair Fight to combat alleged voter suppression, particularly of Black people and the poor, following her loss to Kemp in her race for governor in 2018. Abrams, a celebrity in her own right among progressive Democrats, and campaigning by President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, matters far more than what Hollywood figures say, experts said.

“Our industry, as it exists in Georgia, probably leans Democratic, but maybe not as much as you might believe,” said Ric Reitz, an actor, writer and former president of SAG-AFTRA Atlanta, who has lived in Georgia for four decades. “The voices heard more often are political people coming in as opposed to celebrities.”

Nonetheless, Abrams and Fair Fight have leveraged celebrity interest in their cause. Fair Fight held a Dec. 27 fundraiser featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short and Billy Crystal. Abrams reportedly held weekly briefings with top Hollywood players about the races.

“I believe very much in the power of celebrity to cut through the noise of politics,” Abrams said in a post-presidential-election Amazon Prime discussion about the “All In” documentary.

For those raising money outside Georgia, the pandemic has rewritten the typical script. Instead of holding the usual event at her Hancock Park home, Christy Callahan, wife of former MGM film president Jonathan Glickman, cohosted a virtual fundraiser for Swing Left featuring a performance of “Wait for It” from “Hamilton” by Leslie Odom Jr.

Having to fundraise online instead of in person brought advantages by making the event accessible to more potential participants, Callahan said. The event raised about $425,000, with the majority of donations coming in at less than $500.

“It brings more people into the process,” Callahan said. “People feeling like they’re part of democracy is always a good thing.”

Entertainment industry types could also prompt blowback by creating the appearance of parachuting into a state race. Liberal “elites’’ from entertainment and media institutions are an easy foil for conservative politicians in the South and beyond.

Still, several are showing up in the Peach State to stump for their preferred candidates.

“We’re not from Georgia, but we’re Americans — and Georgia, all eyes are on you again,” said actress Eva Longoria as she campaigned for the Democrats at a drive-in rally in Duluth shortly before Christmas. “Let me tell you — you guys saved the soul of this nation in November. And you’re gonna do it again.”

Perdue has railed against out-of-state money supporting the Democratic candidates, though he and Loeffler have also received large contributions from non-Georgians. Vice President Mike Pence, while campaigning for the GOP Senate candidates earlier this month, focused on sending a message to “liberals in Hollywood.”

Bashing celebrities who are active in politics is a familiar trope in GOP politics. But the party’s candidates have benefited from their famous friends as well, such as when Loeffler appeared with country singer and Cobb County native Travis Tritt at a December concert in Smyrna.

“If you don’t get out and vote as a Republican or if you don’t get out and vote as a Trump supporter in this senatorial election, you are the biggest RINO [Republican in Name Only] I have ever seen,” Tritt told the crowd.

But the bulk of the celebrity appeals have clearly been on the Democratic side, which some political experts argue poses a danger for Ossoff and Warnock.

GOP strategist Chip Lake said Democrats would be wise to avoid the appearance of Hollywood money coming in to influence how Georgians vote.

“We are making the argument very strongly that we want to make sure we elect someone who can take Georgia values to Washington,” Lake said.

Cortés, the “All In” filmmaker, says that view overly simplifies the entertainment industry’s involvement in state politics.

“It is important to have these bridges reaching out to communities wanting to know how they can be of service,” she said. “That is the big lift coming out from all of this. We are all a part of this movement and struggle whether we are based there or not.”