When it comes to film in Oklahoma, very few faces are as well-known as Lance McDaniel’s. Known primarily for his turn as the executive director of the deadCenter Film Festival, he is also an award-winning screenwriter, consultant and producer, who has worked on 21 feature films, including “Million Dollar Baby.” He is now the founder and CEO of McDaniel Entertainment.
“The rebate program here started in 2001,” McDaniel said. “That’s the year the legislature passed the Compete with Canada Act, and that was when shows were leaving L.A. to go to Canada. That was kind of the first stake in the ground that we’re going to try to attract people and the state government decided to help at the same time.”
As villains go, Canada is miscast, so perhaps it’s best to see them as inspiration or impetus, but 2001 was year-one on the film calendar in Oklahoma. McDaniel said it was roughly the same time that Gray Frederickson moved to OCCC to start the film program, and it was the year deadCenter started. Bare Bones Film Festival began in Muskogee in 1999, too. Clearly, the Y2K apocalypse yielded better than expected results.
The twin poles of private investment (creative and financial) and governmental solutions continued after 2001. The state founded the Oklahoma Film & Music Office in 1979, but along with the rebate program, it became a source of recruitment and support, especially after the rebate program made it a little easier to attract productions to the state. From their own website, the numbers indicate healthy growth in the state’s industry: 34 films and television projects using the film incentive in fiscal year 2019-2020, employing 3,960 Oklahomans and contributed a direct fiscal impact of more than $32.8 million to the state’s economy. In fiscal year 2021, it was 11,004 local jobs with a direct fiscal impact of $170.4 million from 32 film and television productions.
For young and new filmmakers, it’s hard to overstate the importance of deadCenter in terms of creating a milieu and community where aspiring artists could find smart, creative, diverse voices who wanted to do film in Oklahoma. Laron Chapman won Best Film for “You People” at the 2018 festival. He’s now a full-time filmmaker who did not have to leave the state to pursue his goals.
“deadCenter was huge for me,” Chapman said. “I’m now an alum and programmer – the requisite gay, Black guy – but as recently as 10 years ago, people were telling me to leave the state to be a filmmaker. I stayed, and deadCenter has done a great job of showcasing local talent, especially producers who make films for under $50,000. It was a great launch pad for me and other film industry professionals. And now I make films full time. I don’t have a second job, don’t need one, and I love that we’re more of a community than an industry.”
The arrival of Prairie Surf is an indication that all the roads that led to this moment – long and winding as they may have been (apologies, Lennon and McCartney) – have converged in a place that matters in the film world, but not as much as hoped. Sitting as it does in a key spot in downtown (for now) provides it a physical place of importance, just as landing Taylor Sheridan’s “Tulsa King” gave it a cultural and financial place of importance. But the goal is not just to build Prairie Surf-size and larger facilities (although, without Prairie Surf, there would have been no “Tulsa King,” just as with no Ford Center, there would have been no Hornets). Cannon points out with clear home-town pride that Oklahoma gives more to small productions than any other state: 25% compared to California’s 8%.
Before we get to the final and largest obstacle, it’s worth quoting Lance McDaniel on the state of film in Oklahoma: “It’s no longer an art you donate money to; it’s a business you invest in.” But that last obstacle is one that Cannon and Payne both reference regularly, and it’s not something that will be solved easily, although Payne has shown a particular skill at making connections between diverse entities to help accelerate the process of developing a professional workforce that can accommodate the potential demands of a well-funded, burgeoning film industry in the state.
“When the kid who left his $7.75 per hour job to work for $35 per hour on the set of Tulsa King arrives at the end of Tulsa King, we don’t have a pipeline of talent that assures a next show yet,” Payne said. “He has no choice but to go back to a lower paying job. We have to fix that.”
Chapman echoes the observation when he talks about the struggles of finding crew with our current dearth of talent.
“As a production coordinator, I want the best gaffer or lighting guy available,” he said. “But right now, if one major production is happening, the best are no longer available. We need more talent.”