Oklahoma's booming film industry has Texas' attention

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, June 24, 2024

Oklahoma's booming film industry has Texas' attention
Rachel Cannon, left, the founder of Prairie Surf Studios, stands in the studio’s 1.3 million square feet of production space in Oklahoma City’s former convention center, Feb. 14, 2024. “The only way that I lose is if we don’t have enough money to offer,” said Cannon. (September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times)

by Matt Stevens

OKLAHOMA CITY.- For a very brief moment, Taylor Sheridan’s hit television series starring Sylvester Stallone had the working title “Kansas City Mob.” But at the time, Missouri had no state funding for film subsidies.

“Tulsa King” was born.

“We had the incentive, so we got the name,” said Rachel Cannon, founder of Prairie Surf Studios in Oklahoma City, where much of the show’s first season was filmed.

As Oklahoma poured more and more funding into its rebate program, major productions came to collect. The incentives helped attract “Killers of the Flower Moon,” an Oscar nominee for best picture, and the popular television show “Reservation Dogs.”

Eventually, Oklahoma’s program grew to $30 million, slightly more money on an annual basis than what was being offered in the much larger state of Texas. Famous Texans noticed, successfully urging lawmakers last year to increase funding for the program to $200 million for the next two years, from $45 million. Now, Oklahoma is pursuing legislation that would more than double its offerings.

And that is how the Red River Rivalry spilled over from football to film.

“They’ve got a good thing going,” actor Dennis Quaid, a Houston native, said in an interview about Oklahoma and its film incentives. “But there’s no reason why competition can’t be healthy for everybody.”

Economists say the fear of falling behind is a key reason that states continue to set aside money for Hollywood subsidies even though they have a poor return on investment. States have spent more than $25 billion as part of the rough-and-tumble fight to win projects.

It can be particularly hard to stand out when a neighbor offers a more lucrative deal. Under mounting pressure from New Jersey, which hopes to attract a Netflix production hub, New York recently expanded its film incentive program to $700 million a year from $420 million.

A similar border war is brewing in Oklahoma. When Quaid, Matthew McConaughey, Glen Powell, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson joined forces in a video last year to call on Texans to support more funding for film and TV, they took a few playful jabs at Oklahoma, which is preparing its counterpunch.

“Thirty million is not enough,” Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, who has been pushing a bill that would pump up Oklahoma’s incentives to $80 million annually, said in an interview in his office. A separate legislative effort would add many millions solely for episodic television series that include a live studio audience.

“We have to stay competitive,” he said.

For many years, the arid plains and wide skies of Oklahoma did not radiate Hollywood dynamism. But the state is a birthplace of boom, one with an unending appetite for opportunity. So Oklahoma made a major bet on filming incentives.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” has received more than $4 million in incentives for filming in the city of Pawhuska, with more payments pending. “Reservation Dogs” filmed a pilot and three seasons in and around Okmulgee with the help of $12.8 million in state funding, and “Tulsa King” got a $14.1 million rebate for the episodes it filmed in Oklahoma City.

Film and TV enthusiasts in Oklahoma insist there is plenty of room for more.

In recent months, the anticipated summer blockbuster “Twisters,” a reboot of the 1996 movie “Twister,” took over Prairie Surf, which has 1.3 million square feet of production space in Oklahoma City’s former convention center.

“The only way that I lose is if we don’t have enough money to offer,” said Cannon, who has a framed editorial cartoon involving tax credits and Stallone hanging in her office.

The Cherokee Nation, in northeastern Oklahoma, has also decided that film is a good investment. It has a film office, a cutting-edge soundstage and an incentive program.

“When we bring films here, Georgia strikes out or Texas strikes out,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. “And if you’re from Oklahoma, you really want Texas to come in second.”

The film industry, emphasizing the potential return on investment, says states are competing for an industry that creates good jobs and bolsters the local economy.

“The fact that 38 states have implemented programs with bipartisan support to incentivize film, television and streaming productions is because of the industry’s proven economic impact,” Kathy Bañuelos, a senior vice president at the Motion Picture Association, said in a statement.

Andrea Sporcic Klund, director of the Missouri Film Office, knows what it feels like to not be one of the 38. For years, the state smarted over the fact that “Ozark,” the Netflix hit featuring the Lake of the Ozarks, was filmed in Georgia.

Sporcic Klund said that at one trade show, she and her colleagues began making red marks every time someone asked whether Missouri had filming incentives.

“It was pages and pages of tally marks, and it was a conversation ender,” she recalled. “We would say, ‘We don’t have an incentive,’ and they would walk away.”

By 2023, after missing out on both “Ozark” and “Tulsa King,” Missouri lawmakers had passed the Show MO Act, which restarted the state’s dormant film and TV incentive program.

Now it is Oklahoma that has been left at the altar. The second season of “Tulsa King” will be filmed primarily in Atlanta, in a state with an uncapped tax incentive program.

Showrunners did not choose Tulsa strictly because of Oklahoma’s rebate program, according to an executive connected to the show, who asked to remain unidentified to share insight into sensitive discussions. And the decision to move to Georgia, the executive said, was made mostly because actors and crew members are more readily available there.

Cannon was left with the impression that the move was largely a financial one.

“They didn’t give us a reason they chose not to stay,” she said, “other than I know they didn’t get enough money back.”

Oklahoma also increasingly has to worry about movies and shows being lured by Texas, which is doing what it does best: Building big.

Last year, Stray Vista Studios, the state’s largest space for virtual production, opened in Dripping Springs, 25 miles west of Austin. Hill Country Studios, a 200-acre production hub in San Marcos, is expected to open its first seven soundstages next year. And a 600-acre project in Bastrop, an hour’s drive from San Marcos, is on the way, too.

“Most Texans like to be bigger and better than everybody, not just Oklahomans,” said Four Price, a House member who last session sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have created an entirely new incentive program.

Supporters of that effort say it would create more stable funding, in part by giving productions transferable tax credits. (The state’s current program uses cash grants.)

A fresh video from famous Texans will appear soon, said Chase Musslewhite, who is helping lead a coalition called Media for Texas. By 2025, she hopes to have a new bill to put in front of the Legislature.

How much funding will the group seek?

Musslewhite noted that Georgia’s program has no cap, and that New York and California are able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year. “So we would want to be in that realm,” she said. “To be as competitive as that would be the goal.”

Quaid was more precise.

“The next time we come back,” he said, “we’re going to ask for $1 billion.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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