‘We’re Planning the Re-Entry Period’

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California Film Commission chief Colleen Bell says state officials are making progress on hammering out details for the resumption of film and TV production following industrywide shutdowns in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But they’re moving forward cautiously as the process is complicated, to say the least.

“We are having daily conversations about the protocols,” Bell told Variety on Wednesday. “We know that people are going to want to get back to work so we’re planning the re-entry period. We are handling a massive amount of inquiries.”

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The commissioner emphasized that there’s no clear timetable in place yet for when stay-at-home orders will be relaxed or lifted.

“This is going to be complicated,” she said. “A lot of people who are very smart are working on figuring this out. I had seven back-to-back Zoom calls one day.”

All series shooting in California were shut down last month due to the pandemic. HBO’s Bill Hader comedy “Barry” (set to begin filming in April); ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and “Schooled”; America Ferrera’s NBC comedy “Superstore”; season four of FX’s “Snowfall; and the second season of HBO’s “Euphoria” are among the impacted shows.

“Into the Dark,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Botched” are some of the projects with finalized permits that have been canceled.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “shelter in place” directive went into effect on March 19. The governor said five weeks later on April 22 that he wasn’t willing to roll back social-distancing restrictions: “I wish I could prescribe a specific date to say we could turn on the light switch and go back to normalcy. We’ve tried to make it crystal clear there is no light switch and there is no date. … I can assure you those decisions will be forthcoming and will be based upon science, data and the spread of the virus.”

Newsom named Bell as California Film Commissioner in May. Bell, who succeeded Amy Lemisch, is part of the governor’s senior staff in the Office of Business and Economic Development, also known as GO-Biz.

Bell said state officials are attempting to set in place different protocols for studio films, small films and post-production. She’s also optimistic about California’s long-term outlook: “Before the crisis, there was a tsunami wave of demand for content. I assume that’s going to continue when we get past this.”

Bell has an extensive production resume from Bell-Phillip Television Productions, including producer from 2012 to 2014, director of special projects from 2006 to 2012, and associate producer and script supervisor from 1991 to 2003. She was a producer on “The Bold and the Beautiful” from 1991 and 2015. She was also the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary between 2014 and 2017.

The film commission’s key role is to promote California as the location of choice for motion picture, television and commercial production. It administers the Film & Television Tax Credit Program, which provides tax credits based on qualified expenditures for eligible productions that are produced in California.

During the latter years of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor, the state legislature expanded tax credits in California to combat runaway production, resulting in an annual allocation of $100 million. The California program was then more than tripled in size in 2014, to $330 million annually, to compete effectively with incentives in New York and Georgia. The state modified the selection process, ditching a lottery in favor of an evaluation of each project’s job creation.

In 2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an extension of California’s production tax credit program for five years beyond its 2020 expiration, with $1.6 billion in credits. Films covered under the program have included Disney’s “Captain Marvel,” Paramount’s “Bumblebee” and Warner Bros.’ “Space Jam 2.”

The pandemic began affecting the program in mid-March, when the commission announced that recipients of tax credit allocations would be able to get an extension of the timeline requirements. The program, which covers up to 25% of production costs, generally requires recipients to start production within 180 days of receiving the allocation.

“The impact of Covid-19 on tax credit productions is considered a force majeure situation,” the commission said. “Approved tax credit applicants impacted by the pandemic in a way that affects their ability to satisfy timeline requirements are eligible to submit a force majeure request.”

Bell notes that the film commission delayed plans for announcing how to apply for the new version of the program, which is due to start on July 1. “This is an extraordinary set of circumstances,” she added.

Version 3.0 of the California Film and Television Tax Credit program requires approved applicants to provide statistics on the diversity of the workforce employed, as part of an effort to increase the representation of women and minorities. It also establishes a pilot skills training program for individuals from underserved communities to prepare for jobs in the industry.

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