California Film Commissioner Colleen Bell Is Optimistic on Production Comeback

As Hollywood makes slow but steady progress on its reopening, California Film commissioner Colleen Bell is expressing guarded optimism about production resuming — but without any exact date yet.

“I think it would be imprudent to say that we know when things will get back to normal, but I can say with confidence that there’s good reason to be optimistic,” Bell said.

All series shooting in California were shut down in March due to the pandemic, including HBO’s Bill Hader comedy “Barry,” ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and “Schooled” and America Ferrera’s NBC comedy “Superstore.”

In mid-June, Hollywood’s major unions have released extensive back-to-work guidelines for resuming production amid the pandemic, with a heavy emphasis on testing as it released a 36-page report, titled “The Safe Way Forward.” Since then, the state of California gave its blessing for film and TV production to resume, subject to approval from county public health authorities.

A handful of projects have been shooting since then, including pandemic drama “Songbird,” starring K.J. Apa and Sofia Carson with Michael Bay producing; and ESX Entertainment’s upcoming film, “A California Christmas.”

“A lot of very good work has been done by the industry and our public health officials to develop the most comprehensive safety protocols around, and that advance effort is starting to pay off as more productions are able to start,” Bell said this week.

The commission has also been ramping up its activities, announcing on Aug. 3 that California’s production tax credit program had attracted HBO’s “In Treatment” and TBS’ “Miracle Workers.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom named Bell as California Film Commissioner last year as a successor to Amy Lemisch. She is part of the governor’s senior staff in the Office of Business and Economic Development, also known as GO-Biz, and has been in been in regular contact with networks, studios, producers and unions.

When do you think production will resume in California?

The question is straightforward, but providing a meaningful answer is more complex. I think this is the reality for any major production locale — whether in the U.S. or abroad.

California is home to so much of the industry, so it’s no surprise that many projects have continued to move forward here with robust pre- and post-production activity. We are fortunate that so much of this work can be done remotely with plenty of social distancing. We are also starting to see physical production ramp up, albeit cautiously, led by smaller-scale film projects, TV series such as talk shows, game shows and dramatic serials (a.k.a. soap operas). The focus remains appropriately on safety and protecting cast and crew members. A lot of very good work has been done by the industry and our public health officials to develop the most comprehensive safety protocols around, and that advance effort is starting to pay off as more productions are able to start.

I think what is most encouraging is the industry’s eagerness to get back to work in California. We launched the latest edition of our Film and Television Tax Credit Program — called Program 3.0 — on July 1, and the response has been exceptionally strong. We have already announced that two existing TV series are relocating here from New York and the Czech Republic, and we’ll soon announce the list of projects for our next round of feature film tax credits. We are also seeing requests for on-location permits start to pick up through our office and regional film offices across the state.

Despite this momentum, several parts of California are currently deemed COVID-19 hotspots, and that affects all local industries including film and TV production. The good news is that the benchmark infection statistics are beginning to improve.

The bottom line on all this is that the industry wants to work here in California for many reasons, and we can now also factor in the current travel restrictions. I think it would be imprudent to say that we know when things will get back to normal, but I can say with confidence that there’s good reason to be optimistic.

What have you been hearing from stakeholders?

Restarting production amid COVID-19 is a slow and very deliberate process.  Developing infrastructure to meet the new health and safety protocols takes time and adds stress to production budgets. Full resumption of production activity also hinges on various labor agreements. The good news is that we are seeing lots of progress, with reports about how efficiency is improving quickly as more productions get underway and learn to adapt.

Are the stakeholders satisfied with how the process, such as the white paper, have gone so far?

Everyone is committed to getting back to work in a way that protects health and safety; that’s the primary focus.  The white paper was a truly collaborative effort by many leaders in the industry. They were determined to work together and find solutions to the extraordinary challenges presented by the pandemic. It has been clear from the start that all the stakeholders — including studios, guilds and unions — want to work together. The challenges are unprecedented, but there’s a cooperative spirit and determination to get things done.

Do you have the sense that stakeholders are taking the health dangers seriously enough?

Absolutely. It’s clear that the industry has really stepped up to meet this moment. So many different groups are working together within the industry and with government at all levels to bring people back to work as soon and as safely as possible.

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