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When former soap opera producer Colleen Bell stepped into the role of California film commissioner slightly more than a year ago, she never could have predicted the challenges she’d soon face. But with production in her state and elsewhere grinding to a screeching halt in March, Bell found herself drawing on her crisis management training from her time as U.S. ambassador to Hungary under former President Obama. “As soon as the COVID crisis hit, I just hunkered down and really focused,” says the Chicago native, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace 15-year veteran Amy Lemisch in May 2019.
The three-time Daytime Emmy nominee, who has four children with The Bold and the Beautiful head writer Bradley Bell, oversees California’s film tax credit program, one of the state’s most robust economic development tools. (It’s generated more than 80,000 jobs, $4 billion in qualified wages and $11 billion in direct in-state spending since its reinvention in 2015.) She’s spent the quarantine working closely with local officials and industry leaders to map out Hollywood’s safe return to production, all the while continuing to leverage her longstanding industry connections (guests at her ambassador send-off party in 2015 included Gwyneth Paltrow, Ted Sarandos and Maria Shriver) to ensure California remains a top filming destination as production resumes.
Via Zoom from her Hollywood Boulevard office, which she has begin transitioning back to recently, Bell, 53, opens up about the biggest hurdles to shooting amid a pandemic, how her husband’s show ended up being the industry’s guinea pig and why she’s rethinking the commission’s relationship with police in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
What’s a typical day on the job look like for you?
There is no rest for the weary when you work for the government during a pandemic. (Laughs.) I’ve been working 24-7 every day with countless Zoom and conference calls, webinars, and virtual speaking engagements. One day I had seven Zooms in a row. I’m a high-octane individual who likes to move around, so midday I try to go for a run, quick hike, paddle-board or yoga, then back to work. Recently, I’ve been able to come back into the office. It’s inspiration because it overlooks the Hollywood sign, so I see it and I’m just like, “Yes, let’s get Hollywood back and everyone working!”
You’re married to the head writer of The Bold & the Beautiful, and you yourself were a producer. Is it a coincidence that show is one of the first major productions in California to start back up again?
It’s a complete coincidence. With soap operas, they’re pretty nimble, and he is someone who has been producing and writing 250 episodes of TV every year with his extremely talented team for more than 30 years. So he really believed that they could be quick out of the gate and get rolling. But it’s funny, as the California film commissioner, I would say I have up-to-the-minute — or to-the-second — information on when production would be allowed to resume in the state of California, and yet I could hear him on the phone in the other room, and he’s like, “I think we’ll be back to work next week.” And I just have to go in there and say, “Brad, that’s not happening! It’s not happening. Feel free to knock on my office door and I’ll let you know when it might be happening.” (Laughs.)
The production had to troubleshoot some unexpected issues, particularly with testing. How’s that going?
They’ve had some stops and starts, but they are hopeful that they’ll be able to work through the issues and get the cameras rolling. I think they have a scene in the can. I did say to Brad, “Go into this with a lot of humility because there are a lot of variables.”
You’ve been involved in extensive discussions about how to resume production safely, which were said to have involved guild infighting.
I’m sure the people who drafted the white paper [a 22-page document written by guilds and studios that lays out safe filming practices] had a lot of competing interests — but there was a collaborative spirit driving the discussions. We recognize the impact of economic hardship and we know it’s important to get the economy roaring again and paychecks in people’s pockets, [with] health and safety as the priority.
What was the trickiest piece to figure out?
I would say really the challenging part was determining the timing of reopening. When Governor Newsom presented the Resilience Roadmap, which includes four different stages for reopening the economy, there was a lot of discussion back and forth about where production activity would fit within those four phases. It was eventually decided that production would fall within phase three. For some, it was too quick and for others it was too slow. (Laughs.)
California’s COVID numbers are rising. Is now really the best time for Hollywood to start working again?
COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while, so we need to make sure the economy can open up and people can get back to work but still maintain a focus on safety. People are committed to that. The governor has been working hand in glove with state and county health officials, and everybody is looking at statistical benchmarks. None of this will be easy.
What are the biggest hurdles?
Testing continues to come up in the conversations, whether it’s access to testing or testing that presents inconclusive results. So as tests are developed and become more accurate, testing protocols may change and they may be able to speed up that process. The reality is the new protocols may slow down production, but they are necessary to keep people safe.
Do you think it’ll be a two steps forward, one step back kind of process?
I’ll say that some of the productions in the state of California that had hoped to be rolling at the moment have had a few stops and starts. I was on a call the other day with some film commissioners from all over of the state, and this is something that is being experienced in other jurisdictions as well. But they’re working through that firmly focused with their eye on getting their shots in the can. The reality is, the new protocols may slow down production, but they are necessary to keep people safe.
Are there any big-scale productions starting up in the state? What does the timeline look like for them?
No, there are no major large productions taking place at this moment that I know of, but I know they are in the pipeline to get rolling sometime soon. Some will start late July or August, and the I am also hearing some productions that have pushed all the way through to the end of the year. But it’s not one size fits all. There is no standardized approach. There are so many different variables that come into play for each individual production.
Are you anticipating another shutdown during the fall and winter months should the virus worsen?
In terms of concern about a second wave, I haven’t been a part of conversations where people [are talking about that]. It’s possible that some who are pushing filming are just saying, “All right, well … ,” but I can’t get inside of their heads.
When productions do start up again, do you have plans to visit any sets to see how it’s going?
Well, one provision of the guidance is to restrict visitors from being on set, but at some point maybe they will make an exception for me. (Laughs.)
How are you rethinking the commission’s relationship with the police in light of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Part of our job is to coordinate filming on state-owned property such as state beaches, parks and highways. This means that we work closely with filming liaison officers from various agencies including State Parks, the State Fire Marshal, Caltrans and others. Most issues that involve local law enforcement are handled directly by our local film office partners across the state. [But] we are rethinking everything we do to ensure that Black lives matter.
There’s a movement to get rid of armed police officers on location sets. Is that a possibility?
The proper role for police officers is an issue that’s under review across every aspect of business and society, and I think the production industry should be an active part of that process. The reason for having police officers on set is to maintain a safe environment for cast, crew and the communities that host on-location production. Perhaps there’s a better way to achieve that goal. I think we have a unique opportunity now to rethink the status quo.
What is California doing to ensure that its crews are inclusive?
In July, we launch the third generation of the California film and TV tax credit program, which includes several initiatives designed to hold the industry more accountable. [The program goes up for a vote in the state legislature every few years.] There’s a new pilot program to help individuals from underserved communities and a requirement for all tax credit applicants to have a written policy with procedures to address unlawful harassment. They also have to report crew employment diversity data and the effectiveness of their internal programs for increasing representation of women and minorities.
Do you think states will pull back film incentives amid the current economic uncertainty? Georgia’s Senate recently discussed potential changes to its program and is now mandating audits for all projects that receive credits.
Well, Georgia is uncapped, and here in California our incentive program is capped. It’s only for below the line and not above the line. We have a really incredible film tax credit program here. And I’m excited that on July 1 we are scheduled to launch our new iteration of the tax program that will allow for $330 million of tax credits to go to film and TV each year for the next five years.
Are you dialoguing with film commissions in other states and territories about what’s working and what’s not?
Yes, there has been some of that. I had film commissioners from a variety of different jurisdictions overseas reaching out to me looking to California for guidance on this. I tried to communicate with them in the early stages and share whatever information I had that I was able to share. In L.A. County, with a high concentration of production activity, we are a very populous county, so it’s different than the productions that are going to film in Iceland, for instance, which is less populous. They have the ability to be less restrictive.
Are you concerned about losing productions to states that have been hit less hard by the pandemic?
This virus knows no borders. For the most part, decision-makers look to a jurisdiction’s incentive program, infrastructure, crews, locations and weather. California is one of the best locations, and the desire to stay may be even stronger now as people in the industry might be less willing to leave home and there are travel restrictions in place.
Are you fielding those calls?
I continue to hear from people who’d like to keep their productions here or relocate productions back. Talent have expressed the need and desire to be closer to their families who are based here.
Having worked for President Obama, what’s it like navigating this crisis under this administration?
Without getting too political, I’d say in this moment I’m grateful that my professional focus is here in the great state of California. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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