Oklahoma’s film industry endures rebate cut
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.”
Cars line up for a shot on the set of the film “The Killer Inside of Me” in downtown Oklahoma City.
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.
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.