Centering Diversity in Oregon's Tax Incentive Program
Behind the Scenes of OMPA's Diversity Committee
OMPA Executive Director Lisa Cicala recently caught up with Ashley Mellinger, a Portland-based Actor/Producer, and Co-Founder of Desert Island Studios. Throughout 2020, Ashley has been deeply involved in OMPA’s Diversity Committee, including dedicating herself to co-chairing the Diversity Incentives Subcommittee with Dawn Jones Redstone.
Check out Lisa and Ashley's conversation to learn all about this subcommittee's important D-OPIF initiative, and the volunteers who are making the work possible.
Lisa Cicala: What is D-OPIF?
Ashley Mellinger: D-OPIF is an incentive-based program we are developing to offer productions that film here in Oregon. Right now, our state has the Oregon Production Investment Fund (OPIF), R-OPIF, and L-OPIF, which are tax incentive programs that incentivize folks who hire local professionals and vendors.
So D-OPIF (Diversity Oregon Production Incentive Fund) is essentially living in the spirit of that incentive program, but it incentivizes productions based on the diversity and inclusiveness of their film crews and teams.
For people who don’t know what tax incentive programs are, they are essentially cash rebates that are offered with certain stipulations—such as a budget threshold—that you need to meet to qualify for the program. Each incentive has its own requirements, which is also part of developing the D-OPIF program.
OREGON'S TAX INCENTIVE PROGRAMS
OPIF (Oregon Production Incentive Fund) encourages productions to create in the state of Oregon.
R-OPIF (Regional Oregon Production Incentive Fund) incentivizes productions to go outside of the Portland metro area.
L-OPIF (Local Oregon Production Incentive Fund) incentivizes locally produced and smaller projects.
Fun fact: OMPA's Diversity Committee worked with Oregon Film to rename L-OPIF from i-OPIF, for "indigenous." The change was made this year to honor the original meaning of the word indigenous (and avoid any potential confusion).
Lisa: Why do you think a program like this is important?
Ashley: Creating something like D-OPIF is important because it prioritizes our most marginalized voices, the ones that are left out of the conversation—of every conversation, but certainly film is no exception to that. And so we thought it was really important to create a program that would encourage people to examine how inclusive and how diverse their sets are, that would encourage people to search for different types of folks and people from different types of communities when telling stories.
It is so vital to the creative form and to filmmaking to have a wealth of diverse experiences inform that project. And I think that, ultimately, diverse crews and diverse film productions are better productions.—Ashley Mellinger, Actor & Producer
It is so vital to the creative form and to filmmaking to have a wealth of diverse experiences inform that project. And I think that ultimately, diverse crews and diverse film productions are better productions. So we also are coming at it from wanting to create a culture of better production, to create a safer culture in film, to stray away from the typically homogenous film production crews, create productions that are more inclusive of people who are involved in film at the independent level. So that’s why we decided to create the program.
Lisa: What do you hope the program will achieve? What would success look like to you?
Ashley: Our hope is that D-OPIF is passed as legislation and becomes integrated into Oregon’s tax incentive program. Ultimately, in an ideal universe, we don’t live in a world where we need to create these kinds of incentive programs because the culture we are looking to create already exists. That is much further down the road, but my hope is that people will be interested in the program and will try to apply for the program and it will really incentivize filmmakers and producers and production companies to do the work to try to find people from these underserved and marginalized communities to work on their productions.
Lisa: You’ve put in a lot of time and thought and energy into helping to develop this new program. Why are you so personally invested in this work?
Ashley: My background is in acting and I went to a prestigious university on scholarship to study acting. It became very clear to me after going to school that no matter how much I loved film and making art, there were certain spaces I was allowed to be in and there were other spaces that I was not welcome in at all. I think that’s part of what got me into production because I started seeing that I wasn’t allowed to participate in the work I was interested in. So I wanted to try to create environments in which that could be a possibility, not just for myself but for other people who might similarly identify. And there were a lot of those people.
I have a lot of personal investment in this particular endeavor because I have literal skin in the game as a person of color who is a filmmaker and who is an artist. Also for future generations, I would love to pave the way for youth and up and coming filmmakers who maybe feel the same way I did, trying to fit into these spaces that were not seriously considering me based on nothing that had anything to do with my merit. That is why I’ve invested so much time and energy into this.
And really it’s always worth it to me to put my time and resources into something that is going to contribute to the greater good and create a more inclusive space for everybody. I’m not just thinking about the people who look like me or the people who had the same experience that I had, but I’m trying to think about everyone who has been left out of the conversation—people that are often not considered for positions on productions because of their ability, their background... because of all kinds of things that don’t really matter, don’t have any real tangible effect on whether someone can be a creative contributor.
Joe Bowden and DJ Scott setting lights at Desert Island Studios. Photo by: Emma Browne
Lisa: You’ve been building this program so that it does recognize and incentivize the hiring of individuals who identify in many different ways. Can you talk about how the mechanics of the program are taking shape?
Ashley: One thing that we talked about quite a bit when developing the program and examining which identities are being considered when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we talked a lot about intersectionality and folks who identify as one or more than one marginalized community. In the hierarchy of identities, they fall to the bottom. So for example, we found this was true in the construction industry. If there was an initiative meant to lift up and employ people of color, all of the men of color would get jobs first and the women would fall to the bottom of that hiring hierarchy.
In an attempt to address intersectionality and the complicated ways in which it affects individuals who identify as part of more than one marginalized community, we are looking at each marginalized community and, speaking in broad strokes here, are working to weight each identity based on how likely it was for them to be left out of the equation. We actually are examining a lot of data in order to try to back up these decisions that we’re making. That’s been really hard because that data is not readily available, which is a symptom of a lack of attention being paid to this kind of work.
So mechanically speaking, if the bill passes, productions will have the option to have their teams submit anonymous surveys that indicate their identity, those productions are scored, and then that production will be eligible for an additional cash rebate based on that score. That very generally explains how we’ve structured our system for qualifying for D-OPIF.
We actually are examining a lot of data in order to try to back up these decisions that we’re making. That’s been really hard because that data is not readily available, which is a symptom of a lack of attention being paid to this kind of work.—Ashley Mellinger, Actor & Producer
Lisa: Where is this program in the legislative process?
Ashley: The process for getting something like this passed through legislation usually goes like this: We first develop a draft of the idea that explains what we’re developing and what the program is—which is basically where we are now. Rep. Barbara Smith Warner agreed to put the bill draft through pre-legislation for initial review for feedback and viability.
Once we get through that step, the concept will then be drafted into a bill and we will seek a sponsor from the Senate or House to introduce and champion it. From there it will go to committee to review the bill in detail, and Tim Williams of Oregon Film will participate in hearings. Once out of committee it goes to both the House and the Senate for votes.
All the while, OMPA and its members will be meeting with legislators to make the case and ask for their support—and laying that groundwork has already begun!
Lisa: Who else is working on this initiative with you?
Ashley: The illustrious Dawn Jones Redstone is my co-chair on the OMPA Diversity Committee’s subcommittee that focuses on incentives. However, there have been so many voices that have contributed to this project including Sarah Whelden, Karina Ripper, Annie Tonsiengsom—all folks who have been really instrumental in shaping the D-OPIF idea. And of course, Tim Williams of the Oregon Film office who has been instrumental in this process. He drafted the original concept, welcomed and incorporated our feedback, and has been a guiding force through the legislative process. He is not only really interested in the work and very much supports it, but is also working hard to help create something that can get passed.
Lisa: How can other people get involved?
Ashley: Hit us up! Email me! By all means. We are definitely wanting to talk to people—stakeholders for whom this is really important, people who want to engage in this sort of advocacy work, the door is open. We are not a secret club that meets and discusses this thing behind closed doors. So get in touch. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to engage in the Diversity Committee at large, you can reach out to co-chair Annie Tonsiengsom at email@example.com.
As for what you can do to help: We are collecting community generated data from film and media productions across Oregon. This indicates the demographics of people on the team. We have a confidential survey we are asking productions to have their teams fill out about individuals’ roles and how folks identify. We will use that information to determine what a good approachable baseline is for a diversity and inclusion requirement on D-OPIF. Additionally, this information is highly useful when taking the temperature of the Oregon media industry in general, in terms of the EDI work that’s being done. That is an easy, low stakes way folks can help—by having your production teams fill out this survey: Oregon Production Tax Incentive Identity Tracking (or asking your producer/company to participate in this way).
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We are so grateful to Ashley and Dawn for taking the lead on developing this exciting and important program. And thank you in advance to the community for stepping up and supporting it! This is how we change culture... Oregon creates together.