Written by James Peak on Aug 25, 2009. Posted in Interviews

Amy Lemisch in interview

Smart, well-considered tax incentives have finally breathed life into the California film industry, and brought loads of work back to Hollywood. Amy Lemisch, Director of the California Film Commission, is now a favourite of all below-the-line workers in the Eldorado state.

All of Hollywood held its breath in February this year, as Governor Schwarzenegger announced a life-raft of tax credits designed to rescue a local film industry in danger of sinking without trace. For Lemisch, this moment was the culmination of five years educating decision-makers about the desperate need for action to keep the vibrant film industry in California afloat.

When she took the job of Director in May 2004, Lemisch’s role was to coordinate with all levels of state and local governments to create film-friendly guidelines and reduce costs with the goal of encouraging more productions to choose California. The trouble was over 40 other states already offered their own financial incentives for production. Canada was historically a big threat, but also New York, New Mexico, and Louisiana. From 2003 through to 2008 Amy saw a 50% drop in the number of studio feature film productions in California.

The moment the new deal was ratified was a real career highlight, as Lemisch explains:“I was absolutely stunned. I honestly never thought it would happen in the midst of California's fiscal crisis. Then I was thrilled to finally be able to stop talking about it and actually implement the programme.”

Lemisch explains that the incentives provide a 20% tax credit for a “qualified motion picture,” which means feature films with a production budget of up to USD75 million; made-for-television movies with a minimum budget of USD500,000 and any new series for basic cable with a minimum budget of USD1 million. It also provides a 25% tax credit for a TV series that returns to California.

The massive popularity of the programme has increased her workload considerably. Since its passage in February, Lemisch has had to delegate other responsibilities in order to focus exclusively on administering the tax credit programme. “The pace is like being in pre-production every day – answering inquiries, designing guidelines, drafting regulations, processing applications and meeting with applicants. I expected a huge amount of interest and hopefully I’ve been successful in getting concise programme instructions out there. Everyone is looking for clear answers.”

To date, 25 film and TV projects have been accepted into the programme. All are set to begin shooting sometime between now and January 2010. These include Beverley Hills Chihuahua 2, the Disney studio movie You Again, starring Sigourney Weaver, and Kristen Bell, Naked Gun 4, and CBS’ road-racing movie Faster, narrated by Ewan McGregor.

“I can state without a doubt this new film incentive programme is the reason we’re making our movie in California,” said Tom Duffield, Production Designer on CBS Films’ Faster. “Without the incentive, it would have been made in New Mexico. I’m now free to hire the best crews and use the best local vendors in the business. This couldn’t come at a better time.”

Lemisch adds: “The incentive programme is doing just what we had intended – keeping jobs in California – jobs that until now have been lured elsewhere as a result of competing incentives. California has an unrivaled production infrastructure, a vast pool of actors, talented and plentiful crew base and a wide array of locations. Now with our production incentives California is also a viable, cost-effective place for filming.”

With a long and impressive producing career for Parkway Productions, under term deals at Universal Studios and Sony Pictures, that include credits on Riding In Cars With Boys, With Friends Like These, The Preacher’s Wife, Calendar Girl and Awakenings, Lemisch is used to the pressures of the bottom line. But pushing these incentives through, and effecting change for many below-the-line workers has clearly been a major career highlight, Lemisch says: “getting this programme up and running has certainly been a highlight of my time at the California Film Commission. It has also allowed me to get back to my film production roots and use those skills daily.”

The CFC has now started issuing tax credit certificates and so far has issued commitments totaling USD67 million. The state has authorised a total of USD500 million in film tax credits through 2014.

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