Jill Simpson saw the change happening. In 2009, director Michael Winterbottom and stars Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba came to Guthrie to film “The Killer Inside Me,” a hard-edged film noir based on a classic Jim Thompson pulp novel.
Back then, Winterbottom's production was only able to spend about half its budget in the state. The rest of that money was spent in other states.
But in the years that followed, Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, tracked some incremental changes. There are more skilled sound technicians, boom operators, hair and makeup artists and equipment providers in Oklahoma, and it made a difference when bigger-budget productions such as Terrence Malick's “To the Wonder” and John Wells' “August: Osage County” rolled into Bartlesville and Pawhuska.
“Since then, we've grown crew base and services in Oklahoma,” Simpson said. “And now, some of these films are spending 60 or 70 percent of their budgets here. We're at an interesting point, because up until the last two years, we've been doing films that were $5 million or below for the most part. As we're starting to get these bigger-budgeted films coming in, it's bringing up the point that really the best way to train crew is a steady flow of work.”
Steady work, it seems, begets more steady work. Simpson said that as the crew base enjoys more job opportunities, the technicians naturally become more practiced and skilled in their professions and become more attractive to productions willing to locate in the state. More crew and more equipment means more films on location in Oklahoma.
“It's a continuum,” she said. “The more crew we have and the more companies set up shop, the more production companies can spend money in Oklahoma. They all feed into each other.”
The Oklahoma Film and Music Office maintains an online database called Reel-Crew on its website, www.ok.gov/oklahomafilm. The searchable service lists technicians by professional categories. Looking for a jib operator for a shoot? Reel-crew lists seven who have registered with the service, along with their credits on television shows, commercials or films.
But while filmmakers and studios can easily access that database and find skilled technicians, the May 24 defeat of Senate Bill 1126 makes the continued growth of crew base and film shoots in Oklahoma far less certain.
The bill, which was rejected for consideration by a 45-38 vote, would have increased the appropriation for rebates on film production money spent in Oklahoma from $5 million to $8 million and extended the program for another 10 years.
This puts pressure on the Oklahoma Film and Music Office that was not there just a month ago.
Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, whose district directly benefited from business generated by “To the Wonder” and “August: Osage County, told The Oklahoman he would introduce a bill next year to extend the rebate program. But if Sears' measure were to fail in 2014, many other states would step in to take money that could be spent in Oklahoma.
“We've got to have incentives to get the films in here,” Simpson said.
“Forty other states are offering incentives. And it doesn't matter if it's an Oklahoma story and it doesn't matter if there's a specific location they like. If they don't have the incentives, I'm 99 percent sure they're not going to come to Oklahoma.”