Future of Oklahoma film industry goes out of focus

Oklahoma e filmmakers and their supporters are hopeful state legislators will be persuaded to restore the film production rebate program in 2014.
BY GENE TRIPLETT etriplett@opubco.com Published: June 30, 2013

Legislators have called “cut” on the movie rebate action in Oklahoma, at least for now.

The move surprised many, since Oscar buzz already is swarming around “August: Osage County,” a yet-to-be-released film shot in Bartlesville and Pawhuska with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts leading the cast. Also, actor William H. Macy just wrapped “Rudderless,” his first big-screen directorial project, filmed in Oklahoma City, Edmond and Guthrie this past spring.

Other Hollywood projects have been zooming in on the Sooner state in the past couple of years. One is “The Ends of the Earth,” a film based on the controversial story of Oklahoma Gov. E.W. Marland (1935-1939) and his young bride Lydie, tentatively set to be filmed here in 2014, reuniting actress Jennifer Lawrence and her “Silver Linings Playbook” director, David O. Russell.

Oklahoma Film and Music Office Director Jill Simpson has even envisioned bringing a cable or network television series here that could do for Oklahoma what shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” have done for New Mexico and Georgia, respectively: create jobs, build an industry, enhance tourism and generally boost the state's economy.

“It's an exciting time for Oklahoma,” Simpson said in an interview back in April.

Under Oklahoma's existing Film Enhancement Rebate Program, which is designed to recruit film and music projects to the state, a rebate of 35 percent is paid to a film project on all production expenditures it makes in the state — 37 percent if Oklahoma music is used on the soundtrack. The incentive program is capped at $5 million a year.

According to an economic impact study commissioned by the film office and conducted by Oklahoma City University, the state's return on investment in the existing film rebate program is 3-to-1 in direct dollars.

Film and television production numbers have risen nearly 500 percent, from $11 million to more than $50 million, in economic impact since fiscal year 2005.

More and more jobs have been created for the state's growing workforce of trained film crew technicians. Support service companies have begun to spring up, providing production facilities, construction and equipment. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in communities large and small have been profiting when film casts and crews come to town.

In short, moviemaking has been mushrooming in our midst, and it's boosting the economy, according to the study.

Also, Simpson said, “It's a source of pride. What better industry to get an updated image of Oklahoma out there than the film industry? It's like the Thunder; you know, you look at what that's done for Oklahoma City.

“Think about what an ‘August: Osage County' may do. They've moved its opening date to Christmas Day, which is reserved for big holiday movies. Weinstein Company obviously senses that this is going to be a major Oscar contender. That's going to be great for Oklahoma.”

And yet, an unexpected vote in the last hours of the 2013 state legislative session has knocked the future of the Oklahoma film industry out of focus.

Rebate bill defeated

On May 24, the state House of Representatives voted down the proposed extension of the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program, which expires July 1, 2014.

“A lot of us are very upset,” Simpson said, referring to supporters of the rebate program and members of the state's filmmaking community at large.

Outside producers who had been considering Oklahoma as a good place to make their movies will now take their business to other states where incentive programs are still in place, she said.

And locations for Weinstein's “The Ends of the Earth” also will be scouted elsewhere, she said.

Lance McDaniel, local filmmaker and executive director of Oklahoma City's deadCenter Film Festival, said, “I not only believe it will dry up the industry, but I will now have to look elsewhere to make my movies, because I've got to follow the money, too.”

Senate Bill 1126 would have increased the state appropriation to the film rebate program from $5 million to $8 million a year and would have extended the program another 10 years. It also would have reduced the share the film office may give to one film project from 35 percent to 25 percent, so that more film projects can take advantage of the program.

The program is credited with attracting such major film projects as Macy's “Rudderless,” Terrence Malick's “To the Wonder” and the Streep-Roberts feature “August: Osage County,” among others, to the state in the past two years.

At one point, executive producer George Clooney even visited with state lawmakers on the set of “Osage” to talk about the mutual advantages of movie incentive programs.

Supporters of the bill had been confident of its passage until budget negotiations began near the end of the session and the rebate program was caught up in a funding battle.

Members of both parties seemed divided over the issue, with Democrats and Republicans claiming the movie rebate program was “subsidizing movie stars” and Hollywood filmmakers and taking away money that could be used for health care, education, corrections and pay raises for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers.

Incentive or gift?

Does this signal an unhappy ending to what was beginning to look like a Hollywood-in-the-Heartland success story in the making?

“We're not done,” Simpson said, “and we're going to be back again in full force come February. And we have supporters (in the Legislature). We have people who get it. We have people who understand economic development. This is not a good move for Oklahoma's future. We can't take away economic development programs. We are a revenue generator. This is money that can go for health care and education and trooper salaries.”

But detractors such as Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City, and David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, argued otherwise in final debates over Senate Bill 1126.

“What you're asking us to do is give the people in Hollywood $8 million this next year, instead of providing that money for pay raises for troopers, for correctional officers, or those people who are so essential to public safety in Oklahoma,” Dank said.

Inman asked backers of the bill “why your priorities put film credits over public safety or education?”

“For the cost of this increase in the tax credit we could have paid for a new class of National Board Certified teachers, and yet we're told to tell them we can't afford it,” Inman said. “That's a joke. For all that we give away in this bill for movie star credits, we could pay for the entire trooper pay raise and have some left over.

“But we're told that these folks should take priority. Who are these folks? They're not our citizens. They're not people who live in your district or mine. But we're told to prioritize those people over our people. That's a joke.”

Inman said hard economic times have resulted in five years of common education taking $250 million in funding cuts, and state employees and state troopers have gone without pay increases for seven years.

“And in that Oklahoma of today, for anybody to look at me or those people who put their lives on the line for us and say we can't afford to help you, our citizens, but we can certainly afford to take care of Hollywood elite, that's a joke.”

Simpson's response: “Nonsense.”

“To say that we're giving away money in movie star credits that we could pay for a trooper pay increase (is) nonsense,” Simpson said. “This is a rebate, not a tax credit. It's not front-loaded. The money has to be spent in Oklahoma in order for any rebates to be paid out.”

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