Amy Lemisch … Grilled!

The California Film Commission’s director explains the $100 million production tax credit for you.

Amy Lemisch is director of the California Film Commission, the state agency administering a program that creates a $100 million production tax credit for each of the next five years. It passed as part of the state’s effort to close a $40 billion gap and was included to stem the recent exodus of film and television projects to other states and countries.

Why was this program really necessary?
Over 40 states offer some kind of financial incentive for production. We hadn’t. Canada had been the biggest threat to us for years, but now it’s also New York, New Mexico, Louisiana and other states. From 2003 through last year, I saw a 50 percent drop in the number of productions in California.

How will this measure change all that?
We won’t know until we get into the first year, but I’d like to see 40 to 50 projects participate in this program.

What would that mean?
It would mean jobs, 6,000 to 7,000, maybe more. I figure each production company hires as many as 150 local people, freelancers, who wouldn’t otherwise travel to a shooting location outside California.

And these people would be …

Costume shops, prop houses, a dry cleaners, furniture stores that rent to set decorators, grips, lighting engineers, hairstylists, all the people who’d be hired locally where shooting is done.

What about actors, directors, producers — are they part of this deal?
No. Our bill does not include above-the-line people.

Does the program cover all new productions?
No. It’s very specific. It provides a 20 percent tax credit for what they call a “qualified motion picture,” which means feature films with a production budget of up to $75 million; made-for-television movies with a minimum budget of $500,000 and any new series for basic cable with a minimum budget of $1 million. It also provides a 25 percent tax credit for a TV series that returns to California, like “Ugly Betty.”

So what about productions for HBO, Showtime and other premium channels?
They’re not part of this. Neither are talk shows, reality shows or porno production companies.

Porn companies are excluded, really?

Anybody else benefit for this?
Independent films with a budget under $10 million can get a 25 percent credit, and if the company has no California tax liability, it can sell the credit to anybody who wants to buy it, then apply the money to its production budget as a way to cut down costs. They need the money.

Who doesn’t this measure benefit?

Productions that typically aren’t running off to Canada or other states and shows that are much less expensive to produce. This is designed to keep productions from leaving and get back productions that aren’t here.

We’re not just talking L.A., here?
Oh, no. The whole state. We have offices all over. We’re hoping every county benefits. Like, why shouldn’t westerns be shot here the way they used to be. And San Francisco. They’re really hurting. This could really help San Francisco.

Has the state ever passed anything like this before?

There was a program, in 2002 or 2003, I think. It was reimbursement specific, to cover the costs of using the Highway Patrol and firemen, people like that. It was very modest compared with this.

How hard did you lobby for this new package?

I don’t lobby. I educate. This was an extremely involved effort to get this enacted. We worked along with a very active entertainment coalition.

Including who?
DGA, IATSE, PGA, IFTA, SAG, AFTRA, AICP, the MPAA. A real grass-roots effort that involved a lot of labor groups.

Anybody against it?

We had bi-partisan support and bi-partisan opposition. This is a huge state with lots of agendas. Here in LA, we tend to have tunnel vision.

So who opposed it?
Well, let’s say if you’re from Humboldt County, this has very little meaning to you.

The budget deal was just passed. What has been the reaction in the entertainment industry to the production credit?

People are now doing production budgets for California. Before, they’d do a budget for Louisiana and one for New Mexico and see which one made financial sense for them. Now they’re doing one for Louisiana and one for California. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the bill was passed.

What happens if you get a flood of applications? Won’t some companies fail to qualify?
Not every production is going to get in. I’m confident we’ll have more applications than credits. But if I have 40 new productions that weren’t shot here before, that’s better than nothing, which is what we’ve had for 10 years. We have to work with what we have. I’m just thrilled to be started; this is a great first step.

How will the credits be granted, assuming companies properly quality?

First come, first served.