California's New Film Czar on Boosting Tax Incentives, Obamas' Netflix Plans

Elaine Lee; iStock; Adobe Stock
Colleen Bell started her Hollywood career in 1991 at Bell-Phillip Television, the soap opera production company founded by her father-in-law.

Colleen Bell, the former soap opera producer-turned-U.S. ambassador who was appointed to her industry-facing role by Gov. Gavin Newsom in May, also talks about her plan to leverage her Hollywood friendships (including Netflix's Ted Sarandos) and capitalize on the upheaval in Georgia: "I want to restore California's standing."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom's May appointment of Colleen Bell, 52, a soap opera producer turned U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Obama, marked the first time in 15 years the state has had a new film commissioner. In the role, the Chicago native, who is married to The Bold and the Beautiful head writer Bradley Bell, will leverage her long-standing connections in the industry to advocate for the state as a filming destination amid fierce competition from other regions with more lucrative tax incentives (think: Georgia, Canada). "This job merges my private-sector experience and my public-sector experience so beautifully, " says Bell. One of her first objectives: expanding California's revamped $330 million tax credits program that's been key in keeping the Golden State afloat in recent years. Seated in her office on Hollywood Boulevard, the mother of four lays out her plans to capitalize on Georgia's vulnerability and utilize connections like "great friend" Ted Sarandos of Netflix.

Now that you're roughly two months in, who in the industry have you been meeting with and what have they been telling you?

This is an important time for me to be in listening mode. I've been meeting with heads of the unions and the guilds, heads of studios, government affairs representatives from studios, studio and soundstage owners. The list goes on and on. I also have the opportunity to informally have these important discussions with some of my good friends who happen to be some of the big decision makers on where they're choosing to film these days.

Who are those friends?

Ted Sarandos of Netflix is a great friend of mine. He happens to be one of my favorite people in the world. We've had some excellent conversations recently. He's been terrific and so supportive of me and my new position, and I'm grateful for that. I look forward to my engagement with Netflix moving forward.

What do those conversations with him look like with him, considering Netflix has been building out production hubs in several regions outside of California?

Ted and I have had some conversations on a broad range of subjects related to our shared interests, and we'll continue to have those conversations moving forward. He's a great resource and a trusted [friend]. [My] access is the result of very authentic friendships with people that have grown through the years as we've watched our kids grow, as we continued advancing in our careers. I'm so lucky to have so many good friends here in California.

Did you meet Ted Sarandos through Barack Obama since his wife, Nicole Avant, also was a U.S. ambassador?

Nicole was my first friend when I moved to Los Angeles. It's a funny story because Nicole and I were at the Democratic convention, and we were in the back of the bus and she whispers to me, "I went on a date." And this is years ago. And I said, "Oh, with who?" And she whispers to me, "Ted Sarandos." And I said, "Who?" Because this is Netflix [when it was] movies in a red envelope.

What are the main goals you'd like to accomplish during your tenure?

I want to help to restore California's standing as the leading production location worldwide — and we can do that. Other states and countries might offer higher tax incentives, but California provides the best value. We have an extremely talented workforce, excellent infrastructure, beautiful unique locations, and our tax credit program has been extremely effective. That being said, I would like to see us expand our program.

Meaning more money allocated?

Increases in the amount of dollars allocated and expanded possibly in the time frame of how far out we have our tax allocations committed. Like right now, our Program 3.0 goes to 2025, and I want to make sure that there is predictability and stability.

The program is at $330 million right now, so what new number do you have in mind?

More than that. (Laughs.)

In terms of other states and countries, who do you see as the fiercest competition?

Here in the United States, New York and Georgia. Internationally, I would say the U.K. would be a big competitor. They have had some pretty significant investments in infrastructure and studios recently and provide some very enticing incentives. Also right now, the pound sterling is weak and that has an added benefit. However, I will say I still believe that California provides the most value. And the truth is, when I speak to people who work in this industry and who have had to be separated from their families to go and shoot in these far off locations, these conversations are the most emotionally charged ones I've had since I started this job. They want to be with their families, so we need to continue to look for ways of keeping them here.

What about Canada?

Yes, can we add Canada to my list? (Laughs.) And let's be perfectly honest, I do have a soft spot for Budapest.

How do you plan to capitalize on the upheaval in Georgia amid its controversial abortion law?

I can highlight what California has to offer and that the implementation of that type of a law is not something that people making decisions about investment in California will need to worry about. They can take that out of their calculus when making their decision.

One assembly member crafted a bill that'd give additional incentives to projects relocating from Georgia or other states with these restrictive laws. Where does that stand?

We're aware that this bill is in committee review but we and the governor haven't taken a position on it.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to studios and filmmakers actually filming in California?

The biggest barrier is our need to be more competitive. We need to be able to provide more incentives and larger sums through our tax credit program to more productions.

The most recent quarterly FilmLA found that production was down in all sectors with the exception of scripted TV, in part, because there isn't enough studio space in California. Is that not a barrier?

I am hearing from many people that we need more studio space. So we need to look for opportunities, perhaps with our California Competes, for infrastructure projects to build these new production facilities and campuses. What I'd love to see moving forward, too, is a more strategic long-term vision of the infrastructure investment for these studios campuses. For instance, how are we then working with CalTrans for transportation in and out of them? And how do we make sure that there's affordable housing around these areas?

Do you have any specific areas in mind for where those facilities could be built?

Possibly San Clemente. I continue to hear that that could be a location moving forward. But I'm sure that there are many other locations moving forward too, and so I don't want to leave them out of the conversation. They'll be saying, "Why didn't you say my city?" (Laughs.)

California has struggled to lure big-budget films as studios often opt for other regions like Georgia that offer money back on above-the-line (i.e. stars, directors, producers) salaries. How much are you thinking about that?

I always wondered, does Georgia know that their tax credit applies to above the line? Do the taxpayers of Georgia know? Our tax credit program 2.0 extended eligibility to include a range of project types, including big-budget feature films. This extension was necessary to combat runaway production. Our recent allocation to Sherlock Holmes 3 is just the latest in the growing list of big-budget project wins for California.

There's a lot of debate about the efficacy of state incentive programs though. Why do you personally support them and how have you seen a return on investment for taxpayers?

For taxpayers, it's a good investment. I'm a taxpayer in California and I'm getting returns on my investment.

How so?

Well, in terms of expenditures — in terms of what these projects spend when they bring their productions to California, how many jobs that they're able to create and how these projects positively impact [small- to medium-sized businesses] along the way. This is a win-win for California and for the taxpayers. It's coming back to us exponentially. All the data's there.

Have you reached out to former California Film Commissioner Amy Lemisch for advice and if not, do you plan to?

I look forward to talking to Amy at some point in the future. Just the last six weeks since I arrived have been extremely busy. But I do plan to meet her at some point and congratulate her as well on a job well done. I know that she was very committed to her work here.

What guidance has Governor Newsom given you?

Well, I was very honored to have Governor Newsom swear me in to my new position in Sacramento and the Lieutenant Governor, Eleni Kounalakis, also joined for the ceremony, as did the head of GoBiz [the California Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development] Lenny Mendoza. At that time, we were able to have a nice quick chat on the path forward, and it is a real symbiotic mood that exists among the people that I'm working with in the governor's office and GoBiz and also here at the California Film Commission. I see that as a great asset moving forward to advanced our shared and common interests for the great state of California.

How often will you be taking trips up to Sacramento?

I'll be moving back and forth between Sacramento and Los Angeles and visiting our regional offices up and down the state. I plan to go inland, I plan to go north, south, east and west. There's no substitute for our practical visual kind of application for what we have to offer. So I plan to log some miles in my car and on that Southwest flight to and from Sacramento.

Who are you supporting for president?

I think it's important right now to have a lot of different voices within the Democratic Party expressing their plan and vision for our country. I'm supporting a few different candidates during the primary, and then you can be certain that I will support either one of them or even if the nominee is not somebody who I have been backing before, I will get behind the Democratic nominee.

Now that the Obamas are creating content for Netflix, have you had any conversations with the former president since taking on this role?

I've had some conversations with him since I left my office as the U.S. ambassador, but since I assumed this position six weeks ago, I haven't. However, I have had a conversation with Mrs. Obama about my new position. I talked to her about how excited I was to be working with Gov. Newsom and discussed a bit about her projects moving forward with Netflix — and, wow, there's nothing stopping that woman. Everything she does has massive impact. That'll be must-see TV.

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BY THE NUMBERS

$330 million: funds allocated annually to tax incentive Program 3.0

2025: year Program 3.0 is set to expire

25 percent: maximum tax credit on qualified spending

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.