Downtown OKC studios could provide big boost to local film biz
Kerry Myers got her start in the Oklahoma City film community but is now living in Albuquerque and recently completed a second season working in set decorations for the series “Better Call Saul.”
She didn’t want to leave her friends and home state, but Myers couldn’t make a steady paycheck in Oklahoma.
“When I was in Oklahoma I was working on movies where the actual shooting days were 30 to 45 days,” Myers said. “It’s only about three months of work. 'Better Call Saul' is nine to 10 months of work. And what I saw in New Mexico is a year of work. And then when that was over I was able to fall into another project.”
Getting crew talent like Myers back in Oklahoma City is part of the task ahead for state and city film industry advocates as they seek to be more competitive with conversion of the Cox Convention Center into four sound stages.
The campaign to create a film studio in the heart of the city coincides with momentum that includes conversion of the former Green Pastures Elementary at 4300 N Post Rd. into a home for the new Oklahoma Film & Television Academy. Backers envision a movie back lot on the school campus and an academy for aspiring crew members to learn set skills and provide coworking space for film and television companies.
The Oklahoma Film Commission reports the state set new records in film related employment, wages and expenditures in fiscal year 2020. Film production totaled 818 days with 4,206 hires with wages for Oklahoma crew members totaling more than $10.5 million.
After striking an agreement last month with the Oklahoma City Council to market the convention center as a film studio, Prairie Surf Media co-founders Rachel Cannon and Matt Payne are hoping to win business for the sound stages within the next several weeks.
“After our announcement last month, we received inbound calls from around the world about pent up demand for sound stages,” Cannon said. “We are in deep conversations with some of those promising prospects … the collaboration of state and city stakeholders to support our growing film industry is very encouraging.”
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Those working to make the studio a reality include Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell. He sees a chance to create an economic boost for not just Oklahoma City but cities and towns throughout the state.
“I think it’s significant enough to chase,” Pinnell said. “It’s clearly meant something to cities like Atlanta. For 40 years we’ve been trying to diversify. This industry would be a diversification in itself, but it also would have a nice crossover with the tech industry. And could we then be so successful that we have service providers set up here permanently and have people who do special effects setting up here as well?”
Pinnell confirmed Cannon and Payne are drawing interest from significant film producers.
“They’re very intrigued by the downtown Oklahoma City sound stage concept,” Pinnell said. “They love the idea of being able to film an entire movie in a mile and half area. They’re enthralled by it. You don’t get that in Atlanta where you have to drive an hour outside of town to go to Pinewood studio. And there is no infrastructure around it.”
Three legged stool
Pinnell sees opportunity and challenges ahead.
With the addition of the Oklahoma Film & Television Academy and Prairie Surf at the Cox Center, infrastructure will get a significant boost beyond the lone sound stage and film program at Oklahoma City Community College.
The state has a film community, but will it be enough to supply an exponential growth that might occur with the addition of four sound stages? The state also has incentives, but will they be enough to compete at a higher level?
Pinnell describes the foundation of a healthy film industry as being a three-legged stool in which the state has a start on incentives, workforce and infrastructure. The four sound stages and improved incentives are seen as the key to bringing talent like Myers back home to work in an expanded Oklahoma film industry.
“When you have that three-legged stool, you bring multiple productions and the crew base moves to that city,” Pinnell said. “It happened in Atlanta, it happened in New Mexico. It’s not just one-off productions. We need seven months in a row with movies being filmed and a television show and then you have permanent job creation, you have catering, you have security being hired, you have the crews and you have hotel rooms booked.”
Myers believes Oklahoma can compete if it can successfully book television shows and films to the Cox Center. It might even tempt her to come back part time. But she also warns the state will have to reconsider how it runs its incentives program.
Film industry incentives
Oklahoma City economist Mark Snead has tracked the film industry, followed news about Prairie Surf and is quick to note Oklahoma is competing not with California but Georgia.
“Georgia dominates the new growth,” Sneed said. “They are shifting where it’s going. They are the fastest growing state and are offering the highest incentives so far.”
Cannon and Payne are seeking to open sound stages at a time when streaming content is in demand and studios are looking for less expensive filming locations with infrastructure and people to staff the crews that work behind the scenes.
Snead believes Oklahoma is competitive with its incentives, and a number of smaller states are abandoning their pursuit of film business finding themselves at a financial disadvantage.
“There is a general concern about the film and TV industry that when you use incentives there will be a strong pay back in revenue,” Snead said. “What they tell you is that you not evaluate in terms of fiscal recovery alone, but rather with diversity of economic salary, the high wage services industry and population diversity it brings.”
It wasn’t that long ago that lawmakers were threatening to end the state’s film incentive program. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation in 2019 designed to attract higher-impact film and television productions to Oklahoma. The film rebate program continues to offer a 35% to 37% cash rebate through 2027 with an increased fiscal cap of $8 million.
“That cap has to go,” Myers said. “It has to. We don’t have a cap on film incentives here (Albuquerque). Here it’s based on local spending — anything they spend, they get part of that back. We buy all kinds of different things for movies. It can involve used restaurant furnishings. It can be $1,000 spent at an antique shop.”
Pinnell agrees, and the prospects of adding sound stages to the state’s arsenal to compete for films and shows has renewed discussions on potential incentives changes. A bipartisan bill that would have raised the cap to $50 million was being worked on earlier this year but was dropped when the pandemic hit.
“I don’t know if it would have gone anywhere,” Pinnell said. “We are having those conversations now with legislators and the industry, including Prairie Surf, about what an effective incentive would look like.”
The prospect of a major film like “Killers of the Flower Moon” being shot in Pawhuska and wiping out multiple years of tax rebates is enough to realize a change is needed, Pinnell said.
“The return on investment will be huge,” Pinnell said. “We do need to make sure it’s not just a handout — that Oklahoma is getting a return on it.”
The movie “Reagan” being filmed in Guthrie is a reminder that the film business impact is felt statewide. Guthrie, with its intact late 1800s downtown and small town feel, has been a popular draw for filmmakers since it was the backdrop for several scenes in the 1988 hit movie “Rain Man” starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.
Pinnell, who promotes tourism as lieutenant governor, promotes the state as consisting of 12 ecosystems that range from the mountains of southeast Oklahoma to the plains of the Panhandle to the Alabaster Caverns.
Guthrie, a 30-minute drive from downtown Oklahoma City, is popular because it can be any small town main street in America, Pinnell said.
“It is true that Guthrie is so unique it pulls in so many movies,” Pinnell said. “But film companies are looking at Oklahoma City as one of the next great American cities. They see Oklahoma City on the rise, and they are looking at getting in on the front end. Oklahoma City can be one of the premier cities in America. We have studios telling us that.”