The Film in Oklahoma Act saw a 203% return on its $30 million incentive program during its first year. This month, leaders from Oklahoma’s lm industry and Oklahoma legislators will be working on a new, larger lm incentive package, ready to argue that more incentives will lead to more big and small lm projects and lots of high-paying jobs. As a true “if you build it, they will come model,” Oklahoma is poised to catapult this industry even further. But, will Oklahoma invest more to get more?
In 2024, film industry analysts forecast that the 10 top production companies will generate roughly $180 billion in content across all broadcast and streaming platforms. The explosion in programming due to the growth of streaming services has created a critical need for additional locations to shoot and produce content, and Oklahoma has already benefited from the surfeit with buzzworthy shows “Tulsa King” and “Reservation Dogs,” as well as the highly anticipated Martin Scorsese production “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
As recently as a few years ago, Martin Scorsese and Oklahoma only would have occurred in the same reference in a construction like “States Martin Scorsese Has Never Brunched In,” but due in large part to the pioneering work of Gray Frederickson, deadCenter Film Festival, Oklahoma City Community College, Boiling Point Media, and the Oklahoma Film and Music Office – and now Prairie Surf Media, Oklahoma has the chance to repeat the success of a traditionally non-film state like Georgia.
When “The Walking Dead” was still a comic book series from Kirkman and Moore, Georgia was a Southern state with very little history in film production. Eleven seasons later – plus delays and a split season – Georgia now has a robust $4.4 billion film industry, and it is home to industry superstar Tyler Perry. The story isn’t a Disney script, though; there is a context and there are choices, and Oklahoma film leaders said the state stands to benefit from the same context if key people and offices make the right choices.
Hollywood is a Metaphor
Yes, it’s still a place, but more than that, it’s a synecdoche: Hollywood is shorthand for an industry that is now decentralized, and the cause of decentralization is streaming.
Rachel Cannon, co-founder with Matt Payne of Prairie Surf Media (pg. 38), explains the context like this:
“BEFORE, WITH NETWORK TELEVISION, THERE WERE ONLY SO MANY TIME SLOTS, AND THEY OFTEN HAD THEMES, LIKE THURSDAY NIGHTS FOR COMEDY,” SHE SAID. “STUDIOS WOULD PRODUCE 50 PILOTS OF WHICH SIX WERE PICKED UP TO GO INTO THE NEW TIME SLOTS. THE SHOW HAD A COUPLE OF WEEKS TO CONNECT WITH AN AUDIENCE, AND IF NOT, IT WAS YANKED OFF THE AIR AND REPLACED. EVERYTHING HAD TO FIT IN A BOX. NOW, WE HAVE STREAMERS LIKE AMAZON, NETFLIX AND APPLE, AND THEY DON’T HAVE TIME SLOTS, AND THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT VIEWERS. REALLY. THEY CARE ABOUT SUBSCRIBERS. SO, AMAZON DOESN’T CARE IF YOU LIKE THE SHOW. THEY WANT YOU TO BUY LAUNDRY DETERGENT.”
Imagine that you have a television with – to borrow a now quaint lyric from Bruce Springsteen – “57 channels and nothin’ on,” but it’s hundreds of “channels,” and dozens of “networks” – the old words are losing their currency in this industry, as you can see. While Springsteen’s critique was directed at the poor-quality content that first filled cable television in its early days, the new film and television industry would be much like a television with nothing on if there weren’t enough shows to lure subscribers. As Cannon points out, the days of needing six shows for a single network on Tuesday night are long gone.
Gone too are the days of NBC telling viewers, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you,” a clever campaign to draw viewers in during the rerun portion of a year. (Remember that?) With streaming, the time slot is now, the choice is whatever is on a dozen different platforms in addition to networks, and the proliferation of content is staggering compared to 20 years ago.
“There will be about 3.28 billion OTT (over-the-top or streaming) video users by the end of this year, up from 3.08 billion in 2021,” said Emily Taylor, partner and CEO of Boiling Point Media. “This is just OTT streaming placement. There are also OTT movies, stories and shows.”
That is the context. Streamers need content, and California and New York City are only so large, and compared to states toward the middle of the country, far more expensive. Filming in Oklahoma makes good financial sense provided the state develops a robust industry including trained professionals. There are obstacles, of course, one of which can be dealt with quickly.
“When we talk to some people in Oklahoma, they’re scared we’re bringing in the ‘perverts and Scientologists,’” Matt Payne said. “That’s not what the Oklahoma film industry is or can be. It’s an industry that creates high-paying, recession-proof jobs with an average salary of $106,000 a year, and many of those jobs are for non-degreed professionals who have transferable skills.”
The Incentive Obstacle
Incentives for production companies aren’t an obstacle. According to multiple film professionals in the state, including Cannon and Payne, the incentives are absolutely necessary to get productions to even consider Oklahoma as a solution. The obstacle, as they see it, is to get the legislature to increase the current $30 million incentive to $50 million or more.
“Tulsa King is a great example,” Payne said. “We told legislators that $30 million dollars isn’t enough to keep Tulsa King, and the show is not coming back in 2023 because they’re looking for better incentives elsewhere.”
Over against critics who insist the benefits of incentives are too hard to quantify or are often overstated, Prairie Surf talks hard numbers.
“FOR EVERY $30 MILLION IN INCENTIVES, WE GET $100 MILLION IN PRODUCTION IN THE STATE,” CANNON SAID.
They have the data* to back it up too. In an ROI comparison of fiscal year 2014 through fiscal year 2020 versus fiscal year 2022, total output averaged $13.99 million in 2014 to 2020, and $100.5 million in 2022. Wages went from an average of $6.8 million to $41.8 million. The increase is impressive, and the increase of the incentive under the Filmed in Oklahoma Rebate Program from $8 million to $30 million also increased the output multiplier from 1.2 to 1.9.
While the output of $100 million represents tremendous growth, Payne points out that $100 million out of the $180 billion that’s coming from the industry in 2024 is not a large percentage.
“Against the $180 billion, we’re not even in the main part of the game yet, and projects like the ‘Twister’ reboot will bring $100 million by itself,” he said. “Tulsa King is to Oklahoma as the Hornets were to Oklahoma City. We’ve shown that it can be done, and now we need to increase the incentives to keep building and to ensure shows don’t leave to look elsewhere.”
The Long Game
One of the persistent criticisms of the rebate program – other than the nebulous-ROI theme – is that the money isn’t often available for smaller productions.
Kyle Kauwika Harris, the filmmaker behind “I Stand: Guardians of the Water,” has been making films in Oklahoma since 2012. In 2017, he released “Out of Exile,” which was a deadCenter winner. Since that time, Harris said making a film in Oklahoma has actually gotten harder, not easier, for small producers.
“We’re a branded content company,” Harris said. “We attach actors to a project, go get financing, and then make a movie. After ‘Out of Exile,’ all rebates have been denied by the Department of Commerce. Jeff Robison, who made ‘Rudderless,’ just got denied, so he’s going to Georgia. I am shooting my next one in Georgia. It seems projects that don’t come here from out of state are getting denied. I can’t afford to wait for rebates.”
Other small filmmakers mentioned the problem, with a couple saying they prefer not to go on record in case it affects their prospects to get funded later. One of the realities that helps answer the question of why the money isn’t available is to look at the point Cannon and Payne are trying to make: There is a limited pool, and one very large production eats up the funds.
“Will this continue to work?” Payne asked, to drive the point home. “Rachel and I have said ‘Tulsa King’ is a proof of concept. There isn’t enough money to fund all the productions, so we have to think about improving the environment long-term for the benefit of all filmmakers, small and large. I’m an independent filmmaker at heart; it’s why I left California to come home. I want students to stay here and make films. I want universities and career techs to build film-related programs. I genuinely believe that incentivizing big productions at first will have a benefit to Oklahoma in the long run. It’s a long-game approach.”
Rep. Brian Hill (R-Mustang) was one of five legislators who were key to increasing the rebate program, and he said the next piece of legislation they are working on is called the Employing Oklahomans in Film Act.
“IT’S IMPORTANT TO HAVE A MECHANISM IN PLACE TO ENSURE SMALL FILMS ARE BEING DEVELOPED, TOO,” HILL SAID. “THOSE SMALL PRODUCTIONS SERVE AS A TRAINING GROUND TO HELP PREPARE A SKILLED WORK FORCE, SO THAT WHEN LARGE PRODUCTIONS COME TO OKLAHOMA, THEY WILL FIND A QUALIFIED, SUFFICIENTLY LARGE WORKFORCE. THIS HAS TO BE OKLAHOMA GROWN, THOUGH, SO IT MAKES SENSE THAT FILMMAKERS WHO WANT TO WORK ON SMALLER PROJECTS WON’T BE LEFT OUT.”
This all Started Because of Canada
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.”
Building all the Towers Simultaneously
Workforce development is a topic on every production company’s mind, and they’re vocal about the promise and the need.
“We need more crew and talent here in the heart of Oklahoma City,” Boiling Point’s Taylor said. “We are stabilizing a fruitful and growing industry that incorporates over 100 types of different jobs and backgrounds. From electrical work to post-production animation, Oklahoma is emerging, innovative and endearing. Boiling Point Media went from four employees dedicated to the film side of the business in 2021 to 12 by the end of 2022, tripling our size and project scopes.”
Payne has done a masterful job of bringing groups together to start the process of workforce development, especially the career techs. Their classes at Francis Tuttle fill quickly. The small team at Prairie Surf came from the Film Education Institute of Oklahoma, an organization that Payne is quick to credit for doing excellent work via their workshops and intensives.
In August 2022, Payne contributed to a piece on workforce development in this magazine, and for that story, he said, “The career tech schools have created pathways for high school students to get into the film industry, and they’ve helped with adult education as well. Some skills transfer readily to film, like design and construction, and so the schools have been offering classes in construction, painting, set decoration, food styling, etc., and the classes fill up immediately. The demand for labor is there, and it seems the desire to be involved in film is there too.”
That remains true, as does the importance of Oklahoma City Community College in the future of the state’s film industry. Matt Payne chronicles Gray Frederickson’s contributions to Oklahoma film via OCCC (pg. 44), and the school’s new president, Dr. Mautra Jones, Ed.D., is aware of the legacy she shepherds, as well as the demands of building programs to help develop the state’s film industry into the future.
“As an educator and a pragmatist, I understand that community colleges play an integral role in workforce development,” she said. “Students come to us for various needs, not just degrees. We provide opportunities for professional development, and it’s important to have different pathways no matter what their career trajectory is, including micro-credentials and training to be work ready.”
A recent set construction intensive funded by donors filled up quickly, and Jones was pleased to see that participants came from diverse backgrounds. (Payne points out that one of the first questions out-of-state producers ask is what is Oklahoma’s diversity quotient.)
“WE WANT TO PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES AND RESOURCES FOR PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE,” JONES SAID. “OUR TASK IS TO BE RESPONSIVE TO DATA AND WHAT’S COMING, SO WE WANT TO BE PREPARED WITH DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS.”
Cannon explains the need for workforce to grow along with incentives and other pieces of the industry as a tower metaphor at a recent roundtable conversation with film professionals. The voices in the room agreed on a few important points, none more frequently than the necessity of workforce development in a state that is looking to capitalize on the new Hollywood’s quest to find studio space, different locations, diverse pools of talent, better relationships with state and municipal governments, including a business-friendly approach to filmmaking, and enough content to fill all the available “channels.”
“We have to build all the towers simultaneously,” Cannon said.
That is the most sober assessment of the state’s film industry heard from all the parties. Oklahomans are vocally proud of projects like “Reservation Dogs” and “Tulsa King,” and the prospect of high-paying, recession-proof jobs for people from all walks of life is certainly appealing. But obstacles are obstacles, and they have to be overcome for the state to move forward. Listening to the professionals at the forefront of the industry, the conclusions are pretty clear: The rebate program is critical, and so is workforce development, and Rep. Brian Hill gets the last word:
“We set the rebate at $30 million because the industry wasn’t ready for more yet,” he said. “Workforce wasn’t ready. The industry needed time to grow. We constantly ask, ‘What’s the ROI for Oklahomans?’ Are people staying in the hotels, eating in the restaurants? Are we putting Oklahomans to work? When all those answers are yes, you’ll see a willingness to invest more.”
*The Filmed in Oklahoma Rebate Program White Paper, December 16, 2022, Mike Mazzei, CFP, MPAS