“We want to be able to have the best conditions here in California to maintain our competitiveness and have people filming and producing here in our state,” declares California Film Commission director Colleen Bell of her job keeping Hollywood in the home of Hollywood. “And I do feel a sense of urgency about that.”
Replacing the 15-year long tenure of now ex-CFC Executive Director Amy Lemish for the non-confirmation required gig, Bell was appointed to run the Hollywood Blvd-based state division by Governor Gavin Newsom in late May. Overseeing a $330 million annual allocation program for both big screen and small screen projects, ex-producer and ex-ambassador Bell comes to the job in a time of fast change that may require all her skills from all of her background to keep the Golden State in the running attracting and maintaining production at home.
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With an Instagram presence peppered with pics of Nancy Pelosi and other pols that also veers more Kardashian than Film Commission at times, Bell started her career in television after marrying Bradley Bell, the son of the Emmy-winning creators of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful.
Rising to special projects director and a producer on the family run latter daytime soap over the years, Bell has been a significant donor to various causes and Democratic candidates, including being a major bundler for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Having raised over $2 million for the incumbent, Bell was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Hungary by President Obama in 2013 and confirmed in a tight vote after a rocky confirmation process.
Back in the States since Donald Trump took over the White House in 2017, Bell has continued to be a presence on the fundraising circuit. She’s given money to ex-Vice President Joe Biden’s latest Oval Office bid. In fact, as recently as last month after being appointed to run the CFC by Gov. Newsom, Bell also co-hosted an LA event for presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg.
Overlooking preparations for another movie premiere at the famed Chinese Theatre, a well prepped Bell sat down with me this week to discuss her new role running the CFC, the demands on the program and her aims to take it forward. The former ambassador also addressed her political affiliations, concerns about conflict of interest, advantages of her TV and government background and that urgency taking on more lucrative jurisdictions to keep production in Cali.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on the job a little over a month now, so What do you see as the major challenges facing the Film Commission and facing the incentive program going forward over the next 12 months?
BELL: I see actually a lot of opportunities moving forward. You know, coming into this job with the tax credit program in place, the first generation and then 2.0 and now we’ll be moving up towards 3.0, I don’t see any of that as fixed. It’s there. I’d love to see the tax credit program increased and expanded moving forward.
DEADLINE: Now at $330 million a year, do you think that the legislators in Sacramento are open to putting more money into the program any time soon?
BELL: I think anything is possible. If you look at the data, the data supports the position that the impact of this tax credit program on qualified expenditures in the state and job creation in the state really supports increasing the tax credit program. I’m a taxpayer here in California and I see it as a good investment of my taxpayer dollars because what comes back to the state is exponential in terms of the benefits.
Also, I think that we have our 3.0 that’s in place till 2025 and that’s great. But 2025 is going to come around very quickly. So, in terms of investment in infrastructure, I think that we need to have a longer runway. I just do. So that’s something that I would like to move.
DEADLINE: Do you have a plan for when we could see a further extension of the program and perhaps more money in it?
BELL: We’ll continue to have these conversations with Sacramento. In terms of an actual timeline on when we could see that extended, hopefully sooner rather than later.
DEADLINE: But no actual date?
BELL: There’s so many variables at play here, so we’ve got to just make sure it all starts to work and to come together. But, I want to make sure that Sacramento senses the same sort of urgency that I feel of capitalizing on this opportunity, especially with this content demand that is right there before us. We need to make sure that they’re seeing that too.
DEADLINE: Two big parts of your resume that were spotlighted when Gov. Newsom appointed you to this job in May were your background on The Bold and the Beautiful and your time as Ambassador to Hungary. What do you feel those jobs bring to this one?
BELL: I think I have a unique set of qualifications in this job. I understand the day-to-day challenges of producing a TV show in a studio, on location, and otherwise. Also with my government experience, I have the ability to work interagency, work with legislators, represent a government entity, which is very different than representing a company or corporation.
So what I’ve found since I started this job is how easy I moved between both.
BELL: Because we here at California Film Commission, we have an extremely talented group of people that have an extraordinary amount of production experience, which is terrific. We do location assistance and permitting and pyrotechnic training and a long, long list. So I speak that language. I understand how to help with and assist with the day to day troubleshooting and location assistance, all of that.
DEADLINE: Part of that background has also been your extensive involvement in being a big fundraiser for Democrats, like President Obama, who appointed you Ambassador in 2013, and more recently, even some looking to move into the Oval Office in 2020. Do you view that as a conflict of interest, perceived or otherwise, now that you’re the head of the Film Commission or is that something that you think are two separate things?
BELL: There’s certain rules and regulations when you work as a state employee, and I plan to follow them to a T moving forward. I did exactly that when I worked as US ambassador. We had a different set of restrictions that we had to kind of work within in terms of our political affiliations. So I plan to just work within the expectations that are laid out to me as a leader of this commission moving forward.
I represent all Californians regardless of their political identity, as Republicans, Democrats or Independents, in my position, I have proven before that I’m able to leave out politics in order to fulfill my duties in my roles, and I will continue to do that moving forward.
DEADLINE: Moving forward, stability has always been a problem for film and TV tax credit programs, sunset clauses up in British Columbia risked crippling production up there until things were put on a more permanent footing. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a five-year extension of California’s program just before leaving office, what effect do you think that had for the industry?
BELL: With any economic environment it’s important to show stability and predictability. So people, in terms of making investments, they know that this is going to be a safer investment moving forward. I see opportunity, too, for investment in more production facilities. There is a bit of a studio crunch in some areas. We’d also like to see the economic opportunities of our film production here in the state dispersed throughout the state so that the economic opportunities and benefits are realized by more Californians.
DEADLINE: That lack of facilities or space has led some like Netflix to go out of state to create their own venue in New Mexico …
BELL: And they’ve just increased their footprint in New York as well. So, I’m having these conversations with decision makers from the studios and asking what are your needs? What do you want to see happening moving forward?
I’m taking in all of this information I am hearing over and over that we need more studio space and more facilities. Also, what I’d like to see if we can have more of a coordinated effort with this. So, working with the governor’s Office of Business Economic Development, looking into opportunities through California Competes for infrastructure investment, seeing do we have transportation supplied to these employees who will be running these facilities? Is there affordable housing? To have a more strategic and broader approach to all of this is important. Come back to me in a few months, let’s really talk about that then.
DEADLINE: Speaking of the next few months, we are seeing a surge in the number of streaming platforms that are going to be available, Disney+, AppleTV+ and HBO Max are all coming soon, Comcast will have something and Amazon and Netflix will be upping their game against that competition – which means you guys here at the Film Commission are going to have more demands on the money that’s there. In a presidential election year and with Congressional seats on the ballot too, is there really an appetite to put millions more into this program?
BELL: Well, the film and television industry is obviously a vital part of California’s economy and this is an evolutionary time, as you mentioned. This new demand for content, I see a lot of opportunities there.
DEADLINE: Such as?
BELL: In terms of increasing our tax credit program, I’d love to see the tax credit program increased. I’d love to see it expanded. There are a lot of demands for money from the budget. There’s no question about that. I think everybody’s going to be jockeying and vying for more.
So, we also need to make sure that we continue to communicate with the legislators so that they don’t just see the tax credit program as an outlay of the state’s resources. It’s an investment and the investment comes back to the state exponentially. I really see the opportunity here of continuing to hit that home.
DEADLINE: Is there a sense of urgency in your mind in the halls of Sacramento?
BELL: I feel a sense of urgency, Dominic, because this is an evolutionary time, but it’s a time of opportunity and we do not want to miss it.
I feel like we have had missed opportunities in the past and that’s why there has been runaway production. We don’t want to miss this next tsunami wave of content demand. We want to be right there. We want to be able to have the best conditions here in California to maintain our competitiveness and have people filming and producing here in our state. And I do feel a sense of urgency about that. And you asked me, do I think that the leaders in Sacramento recognize that this is all coming? I consider it part of my job and mandate to make sure that they do. Because at the end of the day, I’m going to be the one who’s going to be communicating with them about what the needs are, how I see kind of the future of what’s happening so that we can stay ahead of the game. We can maintain our competitiveness and stay ahead of the game. So that’s what I’m doing right now.
DEADLINE: It’s a very competitive game, Vancouver attracts a lot of production thanks to the combo of their tax credits, seasoned crews and the currency exchange, New York offers a lot of money, facilities and flexibility as Marvel, Disney and Netflix discovered to their benefit a few years back and then there’s Georgia, which is very lucrative and a magnet for big budget movies and a ton of TV. So, and I mean this honestly, why should people make their projects here?
BELL: There is no question there are other jurisdictions that offer better tax incentives. But, at the end of the day, I believe that California provides the best value.
Still, for those who are just chasing the numbers, we need to make ourselves more competitive. I’ll say it again, we need to increase or expand our tax incentives. We need to continue to build facilities and we need to continue robust job training programs to make sure that we can meet those needs when the productions are coming back here and staying here. In our new upcoming 3.0 tax credit program, we offer a skills training pilot program. And that’s for disadvantaged areas for job training programs for individuals in those more marginalized areas. It’s terrific and we’re the only state doing something like this, where this is incorporated into our tax credit program.
DEADLINE: You’ve been around, there’s also the politics of this, especially with the Peach State’s new anti-abortion measure that has caused a lot of controversy but little significant blowback from Hollywood. Knowing that the likes of Disney and Netflix are waiting on what to do, does that present an opportunity if that law goes into effect next year in Georgia?
BELL: We don’t know yet. I find it extremely worrisome that there’s even a possibility of that taking place in a state and here in the United States of America. There is no question about that.
So, what I can say along with why should you film in California, add that to my list. You will know that your rights are protected here. We have respect for rule of law. We celebrate our multiculturalism and what that brings to our state in terms of culture and economic growth and everything else. That’s who we are and that’s the story that needs to be told.
The heads of the studios and the distribution platforms and otherwise who are making the decisions whether or not to keep the production in Georgia or to increase their production. They’re the ones who we are going to be needing to make this conversation with. I hope that they’ll look back at California and say, well, you know what, another reason to shoot in California because we know that the people who work for us, that their rights will be protected if they’re working in the state of California.
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