Why The Walking Dead Didn’t Promise to Walk Away From Georgia

georgia-travel-guide-the-walking-deadThe geographical movements of film and television production have long been understood through the concept of runaway production, an “exodus” of film and television projects from Hollywood to production centers across the United States, Canada, and around the world due to local production incentives and the growing infrastructure supported by them. States like Georgia have been the beneficiary of this now historical development, with generous tax incentives attracting blockbuster films and ongoing television series to an increasingly substantial production base supported by both local laborers and soundstages like Pinewood’s Atlanta Studios.

But while Georgia’s relationship with film and television could be understood as a byproduct of runaway production, its future depends on its ability to navigate a new production reality. In an environment where Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Louisiana, and Los Angeles—among others—are all actively and aggressively pursuing blockbuster films and ongoing television series, production is no longer “running away”: we are in an age of mobile production (which I wrote about at length for Media Industries Journal last year), where a project could land in—and then later move to—any number of locations given the infrastructure in place across the continent (or beyond), depending on the specific circumstances of the production and changes in a location’s production—and, often interrelated, political—climate.

Change often comes in the form of reduced production incentives as determined by state legislators (as happened recently in North Carolina), but in recent weeks the political climate in Georgia made news for a different reason. The Walt Disney Company, Netflix, and a wide range of producers came forward in opposition to a “religious liberty bill” on Governor Nathan Deal’s desk after being approved by lawmakers in March. As with other similar bills around the country, Georgia’s bill has faced intense criticism for enabling discrimination against LGBT individuals, but it was the criticism from within the film and television industry that started making national headlines. Disney, through subsidiary Marvel Studios, is releasing the Atlanta-filmed Captain America: Civil War in May, and is currently producing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in the region, which gave greater weight to their ultimatum: if Georgia passed this bill, they said they would “plan to take our business elsewhere.”

Disney actively leveraged the realities of mobile production: there are numerous other cities and states that could sustain the production of future Marvel films, many of which have been filmed in London to begin with. Netflix, who issued a similar ultimatum after recently producing two films and a TV project—with two more TV series upcoming—in the state, does not even frame it as any kind of inconvenience: regarding the two future projects, they simply state “we will move our productions elsewhere,” which could mean relocating to nearby Louisiana to take advantage of similar if not identical production incentives. The matter-of-factness with which mobile production was deployed by these industry forces speaks to its entrenchment: these projects have been mobile since they were conceived, and remain mobile in the case that the political situation of a given location changes as it did here.

Ultimately, this pressure—along with, one hopes, common sense, but let’s not get too optimistic here—led to Gov. Deal vetoing the bill, as announced earlier today. It’s a victory for common sense, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that of those organizations linked to the media industry’s protest of the legislation, not all took such a hard line. As we parse through the larger list, it reveals the shifting scale of mobility depending on context. Georgia resident Tyler Perry is among those who spoke out against the legislation, but he made no promises to vacate the state because he was not realistically in an easy position to do so: his relationship with Georgia comes through his growing Tyler Perry Studios, which is among the infrastructural developments that have helped build the state into a major production center. Perry can’t just pick up his studio and move it to another state—mobility in Perry’s case would require abandoning existing infrastructure, which is not impossible but is neither easily nor logically deployed as leverage in this scenario.

WalkingDeadThe MapThe same doesn’t necessarily hold for arguably Georgia’s most high-profile long-term tenant, AMC’s The Walking Dead. But while much reporting around this issue focused on the most popular show on television’s place, and AMC Networks released a statement against the legislation, it is notable that AMC never suggested their intention to move the series out of the state should it be signed into law. While the realities of mobile production create an implicit threat in their decision to speak out, AMC’s choice not to explicitly acknowledge the mobility of the series’ production speaks to the logistical challenges of moving a television series late in its run, as compared with choosing not to mount a stand-alone motion picture or begin production on a new series.

The Walking Dead has built a production apparatus around its location: relationships with studios, state and local governments, and individual communities have been crucial to finding locations, building sets, and serving the basic day-to-day logistics of running a hit television series. Moving would require restarting all of these relationships, and potentially doing so without members of the show’s crew—some might be willing to move, but production incentives often depend on the hiring of local labor, and many workers may be unable to uproot their families to continue work on the series. And while the instability of the show’s setting in any given season could help overcome the loss of existing locations should they have left the state, these disruptions would cost AMC money while also potentially creating logistical problems that could domino their way through the production.

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Therefore, while The Walking Dead is—like most films or TV shows in our contemporary moment—technically a mobile production, its mobility comes at such a theoretical cost that AMC was apparently not in the position to make the same ultimatum as some of its industry counterparts. Such an ultimatum would have carried significant weight: beyond the series’ high profile, television shows create long-term benefits for states like Georgia—the Pittsburgh film office has referred to them as the “holy grail”—with sustained employment and potential tourism from fans wanting to visit filming locations. Losing The Walking Dead would mean losing long-term employment, and diluting the significant tourism industry the show has generated in the area. However, AMC didn’t make this threat, signaling it is being cautious with its most successful and thus most profitable production—much as Georgia might be averse to disrupting its “holy grail,” AMC seems to feel the same way about a production apparatus that is crucial to its future as a channel.

The near unanimous criticism of this legislation from film and television studios, along with the NFL and a range of other corporate interests, placed intense pressure on the state of Georgia, and the threat was real: if this legislation had been signed, the production infrastructure that the state has built since introducing incentives would be in jeopardy, along with the livelihoods of those employed by or who benefit from the film and television industry’s potentially temporary presence in the state. But the studios that chose to speak out against the legislation without explicitly promising to leave underline the way mobile production has to be understood as a sliding scale, with financial and logistical considerations weighed against the political dimensions of Georgia’s decision-making.

It is possible that The Walking Dead could have left Georgia should this legislation have been signed into law, but their choice of words suggests AMC is very glad it doesn’t have to face the kind of moral dilemma that the show’s characters are faced with on a weekly basis.

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