Rachel Cannon and Matt Payne took the Oklahoma Film industry by storm when they created Prairie Surf Media a mere two years ago. Now, with cable’s highest-rated debut series Tulsa King wrapped, the company’s vision matches the tenacity of its founders.
Rachel Cannon: The Wave
Rachel Cannon, co-founder and co-CEO of Prairie Surf Media, is enthusiasm squared.
“Matt calls me ‘Glitter Guns,’” she said, referring to her business partner Matt Payne, as she raises her hands as pistols, shooting in the air. “I’m always like, ‘We can do anything!’ And he’s always over here taking my ankles and digging them back in the dirt. Because ‘no’ just doesn’t come into my brain. But that’s how my brain works. Figure out what you want and then figure out like three paths to get to that. And then find the one that’s most stable and let’s go on that path.”
It’s quite a path she’s carved for herself. She spent 15-plus years in Los Angeles, racking up an IMBD page with more than 80 network television credits in shows like “Mad Men,” “Two and a Half Men,””The Big Bang Theory” and six-plus years on ABC’s comedy “Fresh Off the Boat.” After marriage and the birth of her son, she wanted to come home to Oklahoma. Then, when Fresh Off the Boat wrapped, she turned her attention to Oklahoma’s film industry.
But first, it all started with Gray Frederickson
After growing up all over Oklahoma and spending some formative years in Yukon, Cannon went to the University of Oklahoma and found Gray Frederickson (see pg. 44) when he was just returning to Oklahoma City after years working in Hollywood.
“When I found out Gray was unpacking his boxes, I literally found out where he was, ran over and knocked on the door, and was like, ‘Would you like an unpaid intern?’” she said. “And he was like, ‘I don’t even know what I’d have you do?’ And I was like, ‘I can unpack those boxes.’
She shared a screenwriting class with Payne at the same time and encouraged him to intern with Frederickson as well. He did, and Cannon and Payne became the first interns of Frederickson back in Oklahoma.
“When I met Gray, I feel like Gray was the one who gave me permission: ‘You belong in this industry. There’s a spot for you. You just have to go get it,’” she said. “And it was the first time that I felt like I knew what to do. Gray is a legend. Both here and in Hollywood. … He made you, as a student, feel just as important as if he was sitting across from Diane Keaton on the set of the Godfather. He made you feel that important. And he made you feel like you belonged there. Most people are trying to figure out how to keep you out of it, because somehow that’s going to take away from their plate. And Gray was just like, ‘no, there’s enough for everybody.”
Bringing her focus to Oklahoma – and Oklahoma’s legislators
Cannon left California at the height of her career as her personal life pivoted.
“There was a new sheriff in town,” she said. “I had a baby. And it was really hard to figure out how to give him the childhood that I wanted in Los Angeles, and God told me to. I felt led to come home. And you know, there were moments where I had offers for shows where I was just like, ‘Okay, I’m going to cry about that. And then I’m going to say no, because this is not the right time.’ But I knew what we were building here is bigger. And I know that there is more opportunity for impact.”
That impact she’s referring to is Prairie Surf Media, the 1.3 million-square-foot production studio in downtown Oklahoma City with five clear-span soundstages, that she and Matt Payne co-founded in 2020. While building the studio’s infrastructure, she also worked with legislators to pass an increased $30 million film rebate with State Bill 608.
“I met with everybody in the House, everybody in the Senate, everybody in commerce, everybody in the C suite, everybody in the governor’s office, tourism and just about every agency – and there’s a lot of them,” she said. “I did that for four months, and there were four-hour dinners, early 7 a.m. breakfasts, every caucus I spoke to and I literally presented the information and then I opened it up for questions. And I answered all of their questions because my whole thing was, you can say ‘no,’ but you’re going to say ‘no’ because you understand it and you don’t want it. You’re not going to say ‘no’ because you don’t know what it is.”
This tenacity took the Oklahoma film incentive from $8 million to $30 million and directly related to landing Paramount’s Tulsa King, which premiered last fall and was cable television’s highest rated series debut of the year. And she’s coming back for more during the legislative session starting this month. The production money is up for grabs, it is just waiting for which state will grab it.
“Sitting in all of these meetings with the head executives, top executives from all of these companies, and there’s zero pushback on Oklahoma,” she said. “I’m whale hunting. What I’m trying to bring to Oklahoma to show the impact and the potential of this industry on a larger scale is the Tulsa Kings.”
And for Cannon, she just keeps hunting bigger whales.
“Matt and I have just been trying to keep up with this vision that keeps doubling every day,” she said. “And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Matt Payne: The Wheat
Matt Payne’s desk in his Prairie Surf office first belonged to his great, great grandfather — and Oklahoma City founding father — G.A. Nichols. But it was Payne’s grandfather that is in his head still today and continues to drive his career long after his passing in 2004.
Payne’s grandfather was an escaped POW soldier during World War II and later became the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“He had this really rich legacy and this strong sense of morality and justice and hard work,” he said. “To both G.A. Nichols and my grandfather, because of this, film seemed wildly impractical. And while he was very much a mentor and someone I looked up to, he did not believe in what I was doing because he didn’t believe it would yield any sort of happiness. And that was a big driver for me —I don’t want to disappoint this man because I took this risk in this industry. So therefore, I’ll keep fighting and one day maybe this guy will look at me and go, ‘I’m proud of you.’”
After college and the very first internship anyone had with Gray Frederickson in Oklahoma (pg. 44), Payne headed to California, landing a job almost immediately on the hit show “24,” then later “Without a Trace.” While he found professional success that his grandfather was able to see, he shifted to travel writing and understanding his passion for storytelling. During the course of more than a decade, he’s traveled the globe embedded with his sources like living with an imam for a week or digging for fresh water wells in Haitian villages.
“I learned so much about their cultures, and it was just transformative to me and it taught me empathy and compassion,” he said.
His grandfather’s words came ringing back as he tried to balance telling stories of the world versus working in Hollywood.
“I thought, ‘There’s only one of these things that’s going to change the world,’” he said. “I knew that I was probably going to have to give up the other if I wanted to be happy.”
He returned to Oklahoma, started teaching screenplay writing and film business at Oklahoma City University and continued telling stories through travel writing and documentaries.
“I traveled all around the world, and I wrote about six different continents and 30 countries probably,” he said.
With his documentary work, he knew his brand of telling stories could work in the film industry. After some conversations with Prairie Surf investor and Echo investment firm founder Christian Kanady and Rachel Cannon as she arrived back in Oklahoma, he knew their idea for a production studio could work.
“What I learned was by telling powerful Oklahoma stories, all of it requires tremendous leaps of faith,” he said. “All of it requires community. When the opportunity for film came up, I was like, ‘We’ve got it. We can just do the same.’ So as opposed to making documentaries about people that were doing cool things, it became how do we do a cool thing by using the formula that we’ve used these other times?”
The secret sauce
And the formula seems to be more like a secret sauce: Cannon handles the Hollywood and legislative side while Payne’s passion is developing the infrastructure for Oklahoma’s film industry workforce. It’s a clear – and happy – division of labor. In fact, as Prairie Surf was born, the logo of a wave and wheat became a personification of them both.
“The reason Prairie Surf works so well is because Rachel very much is the wave and I am very much the wheat,” he said. “She is very effervescent and West Coast-energy watering the prairie and I am the dirt and the ground-up, grassroots effort.”
Payne clearly has catapulted the workforce development side of the film industry in recent years. (pg. 35) but he’s also quick to point back to others also in the industry and the foundation from Gray Frederickson (pg. 44).
He’s turned a passion for storytelling and film production into the largest film studio in Oklahoma in the heart of downtown. He’s plowing into the next generation like his mentor Gray Frederickson and he’s giving back to his community. And most importantly to his grandfather, he’s happy.
”I go back to being a young man and my grandfather’s pause and what his pause was about,” he said. “But what he was saying was like, ‘I’m investing in something that’s going to have no return for you. And, it is going to lead to your unhappiness.’ He saw the worst versions of what he believed Hollywood to be. Now, when kids think about the movie business, they think about how they can have a long career. And that’s truly life changing.
“I think he’d finally be okay with it. I think that there would be a lot of pride there.”