Oklahoma Aims to Court Blockbusters, TV, and Indies Beyond Scorsese’s ‘Flower Moon’

Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” may be the highest-profile film production taking place in Oklahoma at the moment, but if some of the state’s film industry influencers have their way, there is much more around the corner.

Oklahoma is rolling out the welcome mat to Hollywood. Early next month, it is set to launch a new film incentive program that’s nearly quadruple the size of its current program. It’s part of a concerted vision by lawmakers and local industry leaders to turn the Sooner State into a production powerhouse through the incentive, workforce development, and infrastructure investment like soundstages.

The new program offers film and TV productions up to a 38 percent rebate on money they spend in Oklahoma, with a cap of $30 million annually. By comparison, Georgia — considered one of the most film-friendly states in the nation — offers up to 30 percent.

Oklahoma’s base credit is 20 percent and productions can increase the amount with boosts meant to spur long-term investment in the state. For example, there’s a three percent bonus for full seasons of a TV series and a five percent boost for production companies that commit to making three films in three years. Filming on a soundstage and doing post production work also offer boosts.

The Oklahoma program comes as states across the country are boosting film incentives after years of decline in the number of programs. California lawmakers are mulling increasing the Golden State’s program by tens of millions of dollars, while the Minnesota Legislature is working out a plan to implement that state’s first-ever incentive program.

The Oklahoma program coincides with a sunset of the state’s 20-year-old program that largely attracted indies in need of an Oklahoma setting. But it got a taste of what a more ambitious program could do after a tweak to that prior program two years ago preceded a parade of high profile projects like “Minari,” FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming $200 million epic “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The state hosted six productions in fiscal 2015 and 33 in fiscal 2021. Direct spend jumped from $2.6 million to $161.7 million those same two years, according to state data.

State officials are busy crafting administrative rules that will help determine exactly how this new program is run, but there’s already great interest. Upwards of 50 productions are waiting to apply for when the application window opens next month, according to Sofsky.

“Our office, with guidance from the Department of Commerce, will approve applications based on economic impact and longterm benefit,” she said. “There’s a section in the administrative rules that it will hit on this — it could be image of state, it could be economic impact. There will be some discretion exercised.”

While “Flower Moon”-scale productions will certainly go a long way in promoting the state, Oklahoma’s vision for building a sustainable industry hub isn’t just about blockbusters. In fact, the new program sets itself apart from other states in its generosity toward low-budget projects.

Of the total $30 million max annual allocation, $22.5 million is reserved for projects with budgets over $7.5 million. The remainder is reserved for lower-budget projects.

The previous program had no such delineation, but it was capped at $8 million — creating a scenario where indies may have a better chance at securing funding. What’s more, productions must spend only $50,000 in Oklahoma to qualify for a rebate. Compare that to Georgia’s $500,000 minimum spend and California’s $1 million floor.

Laurence Sotsky, CEO of tax credit services provider Incentify that counts Sony and ViacomCBS among its clients, said that’s something that sets Oklahoma apart.

“They’re pretty smart for sub-segmenting the production market and going after some smaller-budget films, which may mean they’ll get more volume, more people coming through, more taxable revenue,” he said.

California, Georgia, and the vast majority of other states with incentive programs offer tax credits. That means productions often must go through the extra step of selling the credits for less than face value to other entities in order to cash in. In Oklahoma, the incentive is cold, hard cash.

“For Oklahoma the cash rebate has worked really well,” Oklahoma Film and Music Office Director Tava Maloy Sofsky told IndieWire. “It’s new money coming into the state that we wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s clean on the backend. You show your expenditures, they’ve been audited, and within 60 days of receiving your final claim you can get your rebate.”

Another key piece of the Oklahoma plan is investment in infrastructure, which the state has already delivered in a big way.

Enter Prairie Surf Studios, a studio facility in downtown Oklahoma City built inside a former convention center that spans four city blocks. The company is led by two Oklahoma natives and industry veterans: actress Rachel Cannon (“Fresh Off the Boat”) and screenwriter Matt Payne (“Vegas”).

“We left Oklahoma because we had to go work in the industry. I think we had both been very drawn to come back and create a space where that doesn’t always have to be the story — people can graduate and stay here because there’s an industry here,” Cannon said.

Just two years after Cannon moved back to her home state from LA, she and Payne have made good on their dream. The Prairie Surf facility boasts 1.3 million square feet of production support space, 140,000 square feet of across five stages — one of which is a former sports arena with 65-foot high ceilings and enough versatility to film multi-cam sitcoms or a hockey movie.

Attracting TV shows is a key piece to increasing the industry’s long-term viability in Oklahoma, Cannon said. “When you have an industry that’s built for TV series on sound stages, you have a workforce that can work full time. Where TV goes film follows, where entertainment goes tech follows,” she said. “This really is building a sustainable film industry for Oklahoma to be a production hub.”

Workforce development is another area of focus for Oklahoma.

The incentive program mandates productions hire a certain number of Oklahoma-resident apprentices depending on the size of the production.

In addition to the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the Film Education Institute of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City Community College offers programs with courses taught by artist in residence Gray Frederickson, Oscar-winning producer of “The Godfather Part II” and “Apocalypse Now.”

And The Oklahoma Film & Television Academy launched last year, offering a range of short courses for various roles in the industry. It was co-founded by Richard Janes, who also co-founded Green Pastures Studio. Both are located at the 12-acre site of a former school.

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