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Union Roundup: Activision Blizzard Staffers in Austin Walk Out in Support of LGBTQ Rights as Michael Shannon Moves His Next Movie to North Carolina


Activision Blizzard logo

It’s Emmy season, as readers of this publication not only know well but also probably can’t escape from, given the various lines of work that bring us all here.

So it is that, wearing another of my showbiz journalism hats, I’ve been watching a lot of nominated episodes of shows I hadn’t caught up with yet, including Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel, 1883, detailing how the Dutton clan wound up with their enviable, often fraught, National Park-adjacent patch of land.

1883 has three nods, one for music, and two for cinematography, split between frequent Sheridan collaborators Ben Richardson and Christina Alexandra Voros, who’ve not only shot episodes of both series, but directed them as well.

The series definitely transports the viewer to those sweeping landscapes that hinted at infinite possibilities to the European settlers (while radically constricting them for the indigenous tribes already here). And also shows how all those possibilities came at a high cost, of course — in lives and blood.

As 1883 follows its journeyers, on a wagon train from Texas to Oregon,  you begin to wonder where those drone shots of the aforementioned sweeping landscapes were taken — perhaps Canada’s Midwestern territories, with its surviving swaths of open space? But as it turns out, it’s primarily Texas (with some Montana locales as well).

Sheridan hails from Texas and has plowed some of his earnings into buying up ranchlands there that also serve as locations.

Sam Elliott in 1883 image via Paramount+

I was discovering all this just as Texas was once again in the news for entirely different entertainment biz reasons: Austin-based workers for gaming giant Activision Blizzard walked out recently in protest of their host state’s increasingly relentless attacks on both reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

In this case, the demand was “that all of our LGBT people, all of the people at ABK [Activision Blizzard King] with the capacity for pregnancy, all of the women at the company feel safe and protected and that they have the ability to live in places that aren’t going to actively harm them,” as one of the company’s California-based World of Warcraft engineers put it – for indeed, the Texas walk-out was also joined by other workers in their California, New York, and Minnesota locations.

Company employees were asking for “all workers to have the right to work remotely and for workers living in ‘locations passing discriminatory legislation,’ such as antiabortion laws, to be offered relocation assistance to a different state or country,” according to a Washington Post write-up.

The article notes that employees were “also demanding the company sign a labor-neutrality agreement to respect the rights of workers to join a union,” though the walkouts weren’t viewed as primarily a labor organizing action (though, to be sure, there have been lots of moves in the gaming industry in that direction, of late, which could spark a whole separate discussion on whether the tech-adjacent VFX side of production could also be organized, at last).

And to be sure, the Texas state government, feeling, apparently, it just hasn’t been punitive enough, is looking into punishing companies for helping employees in the very ways that Activision Blizzard’s employees were asking about.

Of course, relocation — and working remotely — is different from traveling from an oppressive host state to go elsewhere for OB/GYN care. It’s also something you can’t do if you’re an actor, or crew member, already on location in a state like Texas.

Which brings us back to 1883, and the multi-generational saga of the well-viewed, and Emmy-nominated Duttons. Sheridan has more series planned (having extended his ViacomCBS deal), including 1923, set during another period of fundamentalist overreach — Prohibition.

Take Shelter
Michael Shannon in Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics

But at what point will film workers start to feel like their video game counterparts, and decide enough is enough?

It happened earlier this month already, with Michael Shannon‘s feature directorial debut Eric Larue, which relocated from Arkansas, after its producer, Sarah Green, “sent communication to the state’s film commissioner Tuesday that the film would be relocating to Wilmington, NC.”

According to the Raleigh News-Observer, “North Carolina’s less-restrictive abortion laws appeared to make the state more attractive for filming compared to its more restrictive counterparts,” but then adds that “the decision isn’t the first time productions have cited state policies on abortion in deciding where to film or produce their projects. In 2019, several major production companies, including Netflix and Disney, threatened to pull productions from Georgia after the state passed a controversial ‘heartbeat law’ that banned abortion after a fetal heartbeat could be detected.”

And guess what? That bill has been tied up in court, but a recent ruling has allowed it to go into effect. So far, no word from Netflix or Disney about whether they’ll keep filming there.

It’s likely that many of these companies are waiting to see how the midterm elections go – and whether the damage will be ameliorated, or amplified, in its wake. By then, the Emmys will have come and gone, and more of the Dutton family saga will be getting prepped for production.

And while we still haven’t had our own land rush of prominent above-the-liners pulling out of productions because of where they were being filmed, well, those Duttons were always about standing firm in your principles. So this past week’s Activision Blizzard actions could be looked at as more of a harbinger, than an anomaly.

We will know for sure, in the weeks and months ahead.

MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’ Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.

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