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.”
Simpson emphasizes that supporting state-based filmmakers is as important to the film office as luring Hollywood productions to the state.
“There's a lot of talent in Oklahoma,” she said. “It can't just be one or the other. It's got to be a combination of trying to lift up your local filmmaker, as well as at the same time recruiting the films in to help you grow your crew base and your support services.
“But I think our goal here at the agency is at some point, possibly next year, to carve out, possibly separate the money out where there is a pot separate for the local filmmakers, that won't be diminished if a big film comes through.”
A case in point about such small, low-budget, strictly Oklahoma-made projects is “Skid,” a faith-based comedy about corporate spy Hank Hazard (played by Oklahoma-born actor Wil Crown), who flies incognito to evaluate the service of various airlines. The screenplay is by Moore-based author Rene Gutteridge, based on an installment of her “Occupational Hazard” series of novels.
Gutteridge is an Oklahoma native and award-winning author, screenwriter and playwright. She has published 18 novels and has been published extensively as a comedy sketch writer. “Skid” follows the antics of an eclectic cast of characters as they fly from Atlanta to Amsterdam.
“Yes, we've worked with the film commission, and it's been extremely helpful,” Gutteridge said.
She was talking during a break in filming on location at Metro Technology Center's Aviation Career Campus in Oklahoma City, which was allowing her cast and crew to shoot inside a retired jetliner parked on the apron outside the main building.
“You know, when you're an independent film, you count every penny, literally every penny,” Gutteridge said. “And it's made a huge difference and helped us.”
She said the program has helped her project “mostly through tax-exemptions and helping to buy food and supplies and that sort of thing. When you get that kind of a tax break it makes a huge difference. And of course you want your production value to be high, and so we're able to do that with the money we save.”
Producer-director Brent Ryan Green, co-founder of Oklahoma City-based Toy Gun Films, managed to prequalify for the film enhancement program before rebate funds for the coming fiscal year were tapped out. He still plans to begin filming his feature-length directorial debut — a science-fiction thriller titled “The Veil” — in Oklahoma this fall.
Toy Gun also has a second branch, Gray Hour Productions, which operates a production services facility that can be hired for any number of tasks, from preproduction to postproduction, including editing, special effects, color and audio correction and equipment rentals.
Working closely with the film office, Gray Hour has done work for local and Hollywood production filmed in the state, including director Nick Cassavetes' “Yellow,” which filmed here in 2012; the locally produced, faith-based film “Home Run”; Oklahoma City-based producer Gray Frederickson's “Just Crazy Enough” and “Higher Mission”; and Macy's “Rudderless.”
But if the rebate program is not resurrected in the 2014 legislative session, Green and his partner, writer-producer Jeff Goldberg, intend to move their operations to Los Angeles.
“It's unfortunate that the bill has failed,” Green said. “But the good news for our project, ‘The Veil,' is that it was prequalified as part of the film rebate program from last year, so our feature is still going forward in the fall and will be part of the film rebate program, probably the last film under the current legislation that gave rebate money.”
Green has worked only on documentaries and short films up until now, and his most recent work, “Running Deer,” won the Special Jury Short category at this year's deadCenter Film Festival.
“I'm sure they're not giving up, and just by their (film office) email blast, I saw that they'll make a run at it again next year, so I'm doing my feature here in Oklahoma no matter what,” Green said. “So hopefully the program cannot lapse too long, because they really need to keep it going, keep the momentum going before the work dries up and people start moving out of town, or taking out-of-town work. And it'll slowly die.
“I mean there will probably still be a group of core people that will always work here,” Green added. “But I think there will be another tier of people that migrate elsewhere to find work.”
One of those filmmakers likely to stick around, with or without the rebate program, is Frederickson, Oscar-winning producer of such films as the “Godfather” trilogy, “Apocalypse Now” and “The Outsiders.”
When he first returned to his hometown of Oklahoma City, Frederickson, working with then-Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, the late state Sen. Keith Leftwich and others, was instrumental in establishing the state's first film rebate program, the “Compete With Canada Film Act,” which went into effect in July 2001.
Frederickson has since become an artist-in-residence at Oklahoma City Community College and head of its Oklahoma Film Institute, teaching hands-on filmmaking to aspiring moviemakers. During that same period, he's produced several of his own low-budget feature films in Oklahoma.
“Well, it's unfortunate,” Frederickson said of the failed rebate bill, speaking from a location near Guthrie recently, where he was filming a documentary on the history of the Chickasaw Nation.
“They won't come here for our fried chicken alone,” he said. “But all of those movies that I have done, I never got the rebate. Never. Other movies that have come in here, they've come in here without getting rebates.
“The rebate certainly helps attract people, but many times they come in here because somebody's from Oklahoma or it's set in Oklahoma or it's nice and easy to work in Oklahoma, it's inexpensive living, the cost of living is less here, and we are getting more and more crew which we are developing out of our community college programs.
“So we have some big crew people here now, so it's cheaper. They don't have to bring in a lot of people from Hollywood. So I think that even without the rebate, we can keep everything pretty exciting and moving forward. That's my hope.”
Macy said his first outing as a director on “Rudderless” was made much easier than it might have been, thanks to the Oklahomans he worked with.
“I saw incredibly clever solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems,” Macy said in an email to The Oklahoman. “I saw a community who not only helped us at every turn, they practically adopted us.
“I understand the Oklahoma Legislature did not renew the film (rebate) program. I won't pretend to be qualified to comment on the financial wisdom of that decision. I've heard of states with incentive programs losing money, and I know of other states that have made a fortune. But I will say Oklahoma has a lot of what filmmakers are looking for, which includes varied and breathtaking landscapes, beautiful little western towns, and a particular personality.
“I found our crew in OKC to be incredibly hard working, dedicated and a delight to spend 12 hours a day with, and I come from Hollywood, which is practically the center of the universe when it comes to filmmaking. The Film Office in Oklahoma was outstanding in helping us get this film made, and I know they are aggressive in trying to get more films to shoot in Oklahoma. (Note to Oklahoma legislature — your Film Office is money well spent)
“I can't wait to come back to Oklahoma and screen our film, and hopefully make you all proud. I've been in this business my entire adult life, and my three months in Oklahoma will remain a standout memory for me 'till the day I die. Thank you Oklahoma.”