Colleen Bell Named California Film Commissioner (Exclusive)

Colleen Bell-Getty-H 2019
Sean Smith/Bell Phillip Television Productions, Inc. via Getty Images

Her predecessor, Amy Lemisch, held the job for 15 years, and her appointment comes at a particularly volatile moment for the local film and television industry.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed Colleen Bell, a daytime soap opera producer turned Obama-era ambassador to Hungary, to head up the state’s film commission, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. Bell is expected to step into her new role in the coming days. 

As the new executive director of the California Film Commission, Bell, 52, replaces Amy Lemisch, who stepped down last week after presiding over the agency for 15 years — a record tenure for a director and one that most people consider a success. A spokesman for Gov. Newsom confirmed Bell's appointment. 

As the director of the largest film commission in the country, Bell would seem to possess the right mix of production experience — dating back to 1991, she has served in various roles on CBS’ The Bold and the Beautiful, including producer — and political experience to navigate her new job.

Bell has a rich rolodex of powerful and famous friends. President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to Hungary in January 2015, a position she held for two years. For Bell's sendoff party in 2015, a mix of industry execs, business moguls and celebrities turned out to bid her and her family farewell before moving to Budapest. Guests included actress Gwyneth Paltrow, billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, New York Giants owner Steve Tisch, publisher Benedikt Taschen, journalist Maria Shriver and Netflix's Ted Sarandos and his wife Nicole Avant (the former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas). Furthermore, Bell was an at-large delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, served as a trustee for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and helped raise more than $2.1 million for Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.   

But one board member said that Bell may have a tough time — at least initially — filling the void left by Lemisch. "Amy just did an incredible job of running the Film Commission. I don’t think anyone of us thought she needed to be replaced, but that’s the reality of politics," said this board member, also noting that it's customary for a new governor to appoint his own stable of commissioners. The board member did note that Bell’s political experience could come in handy but worried that she may not know the ins and outs of the state’s labyrinthine tax-incentive program: "I just hope that this isn’t a political favor and that she brings something special to the table. It’s very difficult to say until we meet the person and size them up, so I’m going to reserve judgment on Ms. Bell."

Bell’s appointment comes at a particularly volatile moment for the local film and television industry, with many calling for the studios and networks to weaponize their location filming decisions to punish states that are considering restrictive new laws on abortion. Most of the ire is directed at Georgia, which has one of the most robust tax-incentive programs in the country but also recently passed a so-called "heartbeat" bill, which places onerous restrictions on a woman’s ability to receive abortion care. The bills have prompted calls by industry figures to boycott those states. The Wire creator David Simon, Crazy Rich Asians producer Nina Jacobson and Mark Duplass have all vowed to not take any projects to Georgia until the law is overturned. Others, like Jason Bateman, who has two shows shooting in the state — Netflix's Ozark and HBO's The Outsider — said he will no longer work in Georgia if the bills aren’t struck down by the court system. 

All of which may provide Bell with a unique opportunity to capitalize on Hollywood's newfound distaste for the Peach State. 

Since California tripled its film tax incentives in 2014 with a revamped $330 million program, the state has been able to draw big-budget projects away from top competitors. According to the most recent FilmLA study, which examined top filming locations, California's fiercest competitors remain Canada, Georgia, New York and the U.K. — many of which offer generous tax incentives. And some states, including Georgia, don't have spending caps, meaning they give back money on pricey star salaries and other above-the-line costs — a key draw for major studios that California does not offer. If Bell could convince the legislature to lift those caps, it may prove an early coup and help lure some of the more than 50 shows and films currently shooting in Georgia to California.