FIND­ING FO­CUS

Ok­la­homa’s film in­dus­try en­dures re­bate cut

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - METRO | STATE - BY NATHAN POPPE En­ter­tain­ment Writer | npoppe@ok­la­homan.com

Ok­la­homa’s film in­dus­try is mov­ing for­ward and inch­ing back at the same time. A growth in the num­ber of pro­duc­tions and re­turn­ing film­mak­ers was po­ten­tially sti­fled in May when leg­is­la­tors re­duced the Ok­la­homa Film En­hance­ment Re­bate Pro­gram cap to $4 mil­lion. Orig­i­nally re­set at $5 mil­lion in 2014, the re­bate aims both to at­tract cre­atives from out­side of Ok­la­homa and to mo­ti­vate in-state pro­duc­tions un­til its sun­set date in 2024.

This hic­cup is noth­ing new for the re­bate pro­gram, which was dis­con­tin­ued briefly in 2013. Ok­la­homa Film and Mu­sic Of­fice di­rec­tor Tava Maloy Sof­sky said work­ing within the re­straints of a con­ser­va­tive re­bate of­fer re­sem­bles climb­ing a moun­tain. Al­though it’s par for the course with the state’s re­cent bud­get cri­sis, the cut in May makes for an even steeper climb.

“It does equate to the loss of jobs when we lower the cap or the pro­gram dis­ap­pears for any pe­riod of time. Ob­vi­ously, that cre­ates in­con­sis­tency and un­cer­tainty for the film­mak­ers,” Sof­sky told The Ok­la­homan. “It ab­so­lutely will make a dent or de­crease the amount of jobs and the amount of rev­enue go­ing into the pock­ets of Ok­la­homa ven­dors.”

Since the re­bate re­newal in 2014, Sof­sky es­ti­mated an eco­nomic im­pact of $45.8 mil­lion thanks to dozens of Ok­la­homabased pro­duc­tions in­clud­ing Starz’ “Amer­i­can Gods” and “Amer­i­can Ninja War­rior” Sea­son 8. The to­tal in­cludes money spent on cast, crew, ho­tels, equip­ment rentals and other hard pro­duc­tion costs. How­ever, it doesn’t ac­count for what a cast and crew in­di­rectly spend on shop­ping or en­ter­tain­ment dur­ing off hours while film­ing here.

Ok­la­homa isn’t the only state look­ing to en­tice film­mak­ers. New Mex­ico of­fers up to $50 mil­lion in rebates an­nu­ally while Louisiana caps theirs at $180 mil­lion. Those pro­grams have an­chored big­bud­get movie pro­duc­tions and pop­u­lar TV shows. Sof­sky said it’s dif­fi­cult to land a pro­duc­tion with a huge bud­get with­out a big­ger re­bate.

She used an up­com­ing Martin Scors­ese movie as an ex­am­ple. The cel­e­brated di­rec­tor is look­ing to film an adap­ta­tion of David Grann’s 2017 non­fic­tion book, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“The story is set here,” Sof­sky said. “They’re very in­ter­ested in keep­ing that au­then­tic­ity. They’ve seen what Ok­la­homa has to of­fer, and they re­ally love it here. … But our in­cen­tive won’t sup­port it.

“That doesn’t stop us. We’re re­silient . ... I don’t want peo­ple to move away be­cause I don’t know if they’ll come back. We’ve got to pre­serve what we’ve got and keep build­ing upon it, not mov­ing the other di­rec­tion.”

Me­chan­ics of a re­bate

So how does Ok­la­homa’s re­bate work? Spend­ing has to be done up-front be­fore any­one gets a re­turn. The in­cen­tive pro­vides rebates to film­mak­ers amount­ing to roughly $1 for ev­ery $3 they spend on pro­duc­tion in Ok­la­homa.

The state-funded Film and Mu­sic Of­fice helps mon­i­tor ev­ery pur­chase made in Ok­la­homa for qual­i­fy­ing films and bases the re­bate on di­rect pro­duc­tion costs rang­ing from lodg­ing and ve­hi­cle rentals to cater­ing and lo­cal air­fare. As of May, no more than $4 mil­lion can be re­bated to film­mak­ers dur­ing a fis­cal year.

“We’re both play­ing ball to­gether, and it’s a win­win,” Sof­sky said. “When the state rebates them, most likely they’re ei­ther putting it back into the film for Prints and Ad­ver­tis­ing (the ma­jor costs of film dis­tri­bu­tion) to get the project made, which is ul­ti­mately go­ing to help us all. Or they’re go­ing to re-in­vest it.”

Sof­sky noted that Cash­ion na­tive Kristofer McNee­ley has brought two full-length movies to Ok­la­homa since 2014 and is in talks to bring a third faith-based film to the Sooner State.

“He could go any­where, and he wants to come here be­cause he’s had a good ex­pe­ri­ence,” Sof­sky said. “He loves our crews.”

Still, the re­bate isn’t with­out crit­ics. In a 2013 ar­ti­cle in The Ok­la­homan, leg­is­la­tors sug­gested the money could rather be used for health care, ed­u­ca­tion, cor­rec­tions and pay raises for Ok­la­homa High­way Pa­trol troop­ers.

Ge­or­gia’s film scene has grown into one of the largest film in­dus­try states be­hind New York and Cal­i­for­nia, thanks in part to their ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive re­bate, she said. There’s cur­rently no cap to their re­bate and AMC’s “The Walk­ing Dead” has played a big role in boost­ing tourism.

Ac­cord­ing to Ge­or­gia’s Film, Mu­sic & Dig­i­tal En­ter­tain­ment Of­fice, Ok­la­homa is dwarfed in com­par­i­son to the es­ti­mated $7.2 bil­lion dol­lars of eco­nomic im­pact that 245 film and TV pro­duc­tions ac­crued dur­ing 2016’s fis­cal year.

“I think this is an in­dus­try that’s just go­ing to grow,” Sof­sky said. “Look at Ge­or­gia. That’s what I would tell any­body.”

An Ok­la­homa ex­pa­tri­ate

And that’s ex­actly where Ok­la­homa City na­tive Justin Hamil­ton, 33, was scout­ing lo­ca­tions for a Marvel Stu­dios pro­duc­tion. Dur­ing a re­cent phone call in At­lanta, he de­scribed him­self as the poster child for what a film re­bate can do.

It’s what at­tracted him to study at the Univer­sity of Louisiana and to start a film ca­reer in New Or­leans. He said he watched the city re­bound af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina thanks to an in­crease in pro­duc­tions, film crew trans­plants and the growth of small busi­nesses such as lum­ber yards and bath­room com­pa­nies.

“We shoot all year round,” Hamil­ton told The Ok­la­homan. “We’re not scared of rain, heat or the bit­ter cold. We shoot in all el­e­ments. It’s an in­dus­try with high-pay­ing jobs that ac­tu­ally trans­late to the real world. You have lit­er­ally ev­ery craft rep­re­sented.”

Ev­ery­thing from ar­chi­tects and ac­coun­tants to elec­tri­cians and fork­lift op­er­a­tors, he said.

“Peo­ple think about ac­tors and cam­era and di­rec­tors,” Hamil­ton said. “There’s a lot of crafts­men and skilled la­bor po­si­tions. … You don’t have to go to film school to work in the movies.”

He also noted that film­mak­ing of­fers eco­nomic di­ver­sity and how Ok­la­homa was sim­i­lar to Louisiana in their de­pen­dence on oil. He of­fered an anec­dote that stuck with him from a re­cent pro­duc­tion.

A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of welders were out of work when the price of oil dropped a cou­ple of years back. While work­ing on 2016’s “Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon,” roughly 75 welders found a job build­ing a mas­sive set piece to mimic a dev­as­tated oil rig.

“It still gives me goose­bumps,” Hamil­ton said. “All th­ese guys were out of work, but we needed to make this plat­form into a be­liev­able set. The first steel or­der was some­thing in the neigh­bor­hood of $2 mil­lion. Af­ter they fin­ished, a lot of th­ese guys con­tin­ued a path in the film world.”

Al­though he’s no longer based in Ok­la­homa, Hamil­ton re­turned for a cou­ple of weeks in Au­gust to work as a line pro­ducer on “Whal­ing.” It was his first time to work on a fea­ture in his home state. Ok­la­homa’s Film and Mu­sic Of­fice also of­fers an ex­pa­tri­ate pro­gram to at­tract former Okies back to the state to sat­isfy hard-to-fill po­si­tions on a set.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence, from top to bot­tom, was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was a stress­ful job be­cause it was such a small bud­get with an am­bi­tious sched­ule,” Hamil­ton said. “Yet ev­ery­one was just so pos­i­tive and ac­com­mo­dat­ing.”

Hamil­ton also saw po­ten­tial in Ok­la­homa’s var­ied ge­og­ra­phy and the num­ber of looks (dif­fer­ent styles of lo­ca­tions) “Whal­ing” could shoot in a small re­gion. Ok­la­homa City can act as a big city, has sub­urbs, coun­try­side and Route 66 runs through it as well, he said.

“I miss Ok­la­homa. It’ll al­ways be home,” Hamil­ton said. “Some peo­ple run from home and some leave for op­por­tu­ni­ties. When I come back, there’s some­thing new and dif­fer­ent and the progress is beg­ging me to come back.”

It can hap­pen here

That’s ex­actly what Kim Per­ci­val did two months ago. The Norman-raised pro­duc­tion co­or­di­na­tor re­turned home along with her hus­band and two kids.

It was a fluke when Per­ci­val landed an op­por­tu­nity to work on “Star­bright,” a film that was par­tially shot through­out Bartlesville in 2016 and qual­i­fied for the film re­bate. She was im­pressed by the lo­cal crew and the po­ten­tial for Ok­la­homa’s film scene to grow.

“I’m hop­ing I can work with peo­ple to bring more projects and busi­ness to Ok­la­homa,” she said. “It’s not much of a gam­ble. … It can be a sig­nif­i­cant in­dus­try if it’s cul­ti­vated. You look at Louisiana and At­lanta. There’s no rea­son it can’t hap­pen here.”

Per­ci­val didn’t seem con­cerned by the re­duc­tion of Ok­la­homa’s film re­bate. She said she fig­ures if the film in­dus­try con­tin­ues to grow in Ok­la­homa, it’ll speak for it­self.

“It was ob­vi­ous that mov­ing back was what we needed to be do­ing now,” she said. “The en­thu­si­asm for film­mak­ing made it the right fit.”

[PHOTO BY NATE BILLINGS, THE OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES]

Cars line up for a shot on the set of the film “The Killer In­side of Me” in down­town Ok­la­homa City.

[PHOTO BY NATHAN POPPE, THE OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES]

A be­hind-the-scenes photo from the set of the Ok­la­homa-based pro­duc­tion “Blue­berry Hall” in 2015. The pro­duc­tion qual­i­fied for the Ok­la­homa Film En­hance­ment Re­bate. It was es­tab­lished in 2001 with the help of then Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, the late state Sen. Keith Leftwich and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Os­car­win­ning pro­ducer Gray Fred­er­ick­son.

[PHOTO BY NATE BILLINGS, THE OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES]

Di­rec­tor Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, left, and Casey Af­fleck, sec­ond from left, work in 2009 on the set of the film “The Killer In­side of Me” in down­town Ok­la­homa City.

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