Inside the Oklahoma Movie Industry

By: Chris Putman | Category: Recreation/Leisure | Issue: September 2020

Joshua Miller.

Joshua Miller.

Nearly every business has been impacted by the pandemic recently, and countless industries have completely halted work and shut down to protect their employees and the public.  One industry heavily impacted that an individual might overlook is the film industry.  Movie theaters have been closed, finished movies have delayed their release date, and many film projects have been placed on hold, but good news hit on June 1st when Oklahoma entered phase three of reopening.  Movie makers jumped on the filming bandwagon and quickly got back to work, but they have done so with health and safety precautions in place.

When the Hollywood location is perfect for movie making with streams, rivers, the ocean, beaches, grassy valleys, desert sands, and mountains as nearby backdrops and sunny weather and mild temperatures which are agreeable for filming, why would a movie maker look to Oklahoma as a filming location?  The quick answer is economics.

So it seems, Oklahoma has a 35-37 percent rebate for qualifying movie production expenditures spent in the state; it is the highest in the nation.  This Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program applies to even low-cost films with a budget of only $50,000 and has spent $25K in the state.  The best part is that there is no cap for how much a film can obtain in rebates.  This rebate can be used for not only movies but for television shows and commercial production.  The Oklahoma Statute Title 68 Section 3621-3626 provides for an $8 million rolling cap per year and has been approved through 2027.

A second incentive for filmmakers is the state’s Point of Purchase Sales Tax Exemption, where they can sidestep paying sales tax on property or services used in producing their project.  Oklahoma’s sales tax is 4.5 percent, while local taxes average around three or four percent.  These two incentives can’t be used in conjunction with each other—it’s either one or the other—but they are both one heck of a deal.

Smalley working on set.

Smalley working on set.

Although Hollywood was chosen as a popular movie making capital for its backdrop locations, Oklahoma doesn’t come across too shabby.  Many filmmakers have been drawn to the state for its sand dunes, prairies, streams, rivers, lakes, and lush foliage as well as its city scape and historic buildings.

Oddly enough, the Sooner state has cranked out its fair share of movies over the years.  Listed are some from the early years of movie making through contemporary films. 

“Where the Red Fern Grows,” 1974, filmed in Vian, Tahlequah and Natural Falls State Park’s waterfall.

“Twister,” 1996, shot in Wakita which sports a Twister Museum to view movie memorabilia and learn about the tricks of the film-making industry, see Aunt Meg’s house and the town’s water tower captured in the film.

“The Grapes of Wrath,” 1940, where Beckham County Courthouse in Sayre is shown.

“August: Osage County,” 2013, seen are Tenkiller State Park, Pawhuska and Bartlesville.

“The Outsiders,” 1983, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot in Owasso, Skiatook and Tulsa with the Admiral Twin Drive-In as a setting.  Fans can also visit The Outsiders House in Tulsa.

Also included in the Oklahoma film list are “Rain Man,” 1988, with an El Reno gas station and Guthrie Big 8 Motel showcased.

“Dillinger,” 1973, with shots of Ardmore, Enid, Nash, and Mannsville, the location of the bridge shootout.

“The Killer Inside Me,” 2010, filmed in Guthrie, Enid, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

“Rumble Fish,” 1983, filmed in Tulsa and Sapulpa.

“To the Wonder,” 2012, with the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska, the Pawnee Bill Ranch Historic Site & Museum in Pawnee and the Bartlesville Community Center as backdrops.

“Elizabethtown,” 2005, showcasing the Cherokee Trading Post & Travel Mart in Calumet and the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

“UHF,” 1989, captured entirely in Tulsa.

Currently, two films are being produced in Oklahoma. “Stillwater” starring actors Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin is being filmed near Oklahoma City.  Legendary Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio will star in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” filmed this spring and summer.

So how is the movie industry profitable to the state?  Think about it.  When a movie comes to town, it brings actors, directors, producers, extras, camera operators, set builders, makeup artists, etc. and each one has to have a place to stay and food to eat.  Not only that, but filmmakers also rent businesses and buildings for each filming day.  All that is cash flowing into the state.

Zena-born Joshua Miller is an actor, independent filmmaker, set builder, stunt man, prop master, art director, special effects coordinator, and screenwriter who formed Zenawood Entertainment, where he has directed and produced more than ten films.  He is a seasoned producer, and life has taught him to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground with each project so that his creative side doesn’t get carried away, making his production efforts unprofitable.

“For a time, my motivations were generated from a form of internalized mania, a need to generate abstract art forms put to motion and sound,” Miller said.  “Now, when I produce, it is more a quest for completion, a need to make the best work I can as effectively as possible with a profitable outcome.  I still have that creative fuel burning in me, but I have put a bridle to it.”

Miller is also cognizant of the economic impact film-making has on the state.

“The rebate program is essential to Oklahoma’s film industry,” Miller said. “Nearly no one is going to come to Oklahoma to shoot a film without that incentive.  The film industry here brings in money from outside of the state, money that brings prosperity to communities and citizens who need a cash boost.  The film incentive keeps our creative and talented sons and daughters of this state home. They find satisfying work without having to leave behind the state they love, their families, churches, and communities.”

The rebate program has made Miller’s work life a little easier.

“Oklahoma’s film incentive has made pitching movies here easier,” Miller said. “Thirty to 37 percent rebate is huge. Frankly, it is incredibly important to the movie biz here. If some of our representatives succeed in eliminating it, people’s movie careers in this state would be eliminated; dreams made dust.”

So, in these uncertain times of job loss and household budget cuts, should someone move forward into the entertainment industry?

Oral Roberts University senior Hayden Smalley is a Cinema/TV/Digital Media major who has his own production company, Revolve Studios, LLC. Even at his tender young age, producing films is in his blood.  He started projects as a teenager and has won awards for his work.  Finishing his last year of college, he’s been working in the field for a while now freelancing doing Foley work on feature films.  Currently, he’s also working full time as the media director at Faith Church in Tulsa.  Smalley’s goal is not to work for a big production company, but instead, his dream is to stick to being an independent producer.

“I know people have made Christian movies - many of which are good, some are amazing - but there’s never been a Christian production company capable of rivaling blockbuster hits like “Avengers Endgame,” James Cameron’s “Avatar,” or “Star Wars,” and I think it’s about time that changed,” Smalley said.  “I see a need for a Christian production company to rise-up and rival the predominantly secularized blockbuster market.”

Smalley realizes breaking into this industry is a very steep uphill battle, yet he has some lofty goals for here on earth and with a higher vision in mind.

“I hope my films, TV projects, etc. touch and move people,” Smalley said. “I want to leave a legacy of film and entertainment that draws-in both a secular audience while remaining pure for the Christian family. I want to make content that pleases the Lord so much that he builds a movie shelf in Heaven just for the films and shows I produce through Revolve Studios.”

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