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Capitol Insider: Oklahoma Film Industry Making Major Strides

Oklahoma Film and Music Office

Bolstered by an improved cash rebate program, Oklahoma is rapidly becoming an attractive location for television and movie producers - bringing jobs, dollars and prestige to the state.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. Our guest is Tava Sofsky, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office. It's good to have you with us.

Tava Sofsky: Thank you, Dick. It's great to be here.

Shawn Ashley: Tava, this has been a fascinating year for the film industry in Oklahoma. Despite COVID, there were more than 30 productions here in 2020 and in 2021, Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. That's created a lot of buzz, along with Stillwater and Reservation Dogs. What's the image of Oklahoma in the film industry today?

Tava Sofsky: I believe the image of Oklahoma has never been brighter or better. Yes, hosting a major motion picture like the Scorsese one was just really a dream come true for that story to be told in its origin state. But we've had success with our first TV series and 70-plus independent features, which are either streaming around the world or in theaters here in the states. And so, there's a lot of eyes on Oklahoma right now, and I think the image is really strong

Dick Pryor: Other than a rebate, which we will talk about in a minute, what is attracting filmmakers - movies, television and cable - to Oklahoma?

Tava Sofsky: I always say our people are our strongest assets. Once we get people on a plane and to Oklahoma, they don't want to leave. They truly love the heartland hospitality that we offer. And then when you look and you go scout and you see these incredible small, quaint towns and our two thriving urban cities and just so many different diverse locations with 12 eco regions, you can have a desert, you know, swamps and prairies and the Great Salt Plains and flats. And there's just really about anything that you need here and we also have a really strong, skilled workforce and talent base.

Dick Pryor: This year, Oklahoma boosted the cash rebate to attract productions from eight million to $30 million per year until 2031. How will that increase affect the number and types of projects that you see coming here?

Tava Sofsky: We launched the program in August after it was enacted July 1, 2021, and we have seen a huge, very positive response to the program. The number of projects, I mean, I think the quantity doesn't matter as much the quality and we are seeing some really, really quality projects and we're also excited to now host our second major television series behind the FX/Hulu Reservation Dogs.

Shawn Ashley: Where does that rebate money go? Does it go into the pockets of the stars of these movies and television shows, or does it find its way back into the local economy?

Tava Sofsky: I agree with the latter. It definitely finds its way back into Oklahoma's economy. One example, we've got a director and producer who have lived out of state. They've just decided to move back to Tulsa, and they're on their eighth film in seven years. And that is because they see certainty in not just the incentive program, but they love coming home and they've had to live out of state because there wasn't certainty and that that's really important for business.

Shawn Ashley: While the increase to $30 million was significant, how much higher does the cash rebate need to be for Oklahoma to be even more competitive with other states?

Tava Sofsky: To be more competitive with other states, I'll use Georgia as an example. They lifted their cap, removed their sunset and they said, “Come one, come all.” And they have over, I think, 70 certified sound stages and their workforce is growing by the thousands annually. So, to be more competitive, I mean, sure, a higher cap could work. But we are proving and we're being very wise year after year with the dollars provided for this program to just, to really continue to prove the economics behind it, to prove that, you know, this is a, this is business. They call it show business for a reason, and it's a lot of money coming into our state that would not otherwise be here, especially because our incentive is a cash rebate.

Dick Pryor: We're seeing studios popping up around the state, including a very big space, Prairie Surf Studios, in Oklahoma City. How do studios and sound stages change the game?

Tava Sofsky: Well, we operate on a three-legged stool model used for any successful business. You've got to have a strong financial model, whether it's the incentive piece, you've got to have a strong and growing workforce and simultaneously you've got to have infrastructure that's permanent, that's solid. I always include our communities into the infrastructure as well as our local vendors because this industry wouldn't happen without the support of those, but a sound stage, that is something that's definitely been lacking in Oklahoma and we are so pleased to have Prairie Surf with two others now that are certified - a Cherokee Nation virtual sound stage in Owasso and Green Pastures Studios in Spencer and then with Prairie Surf in the heart of OKC, our state's capital, I mean, it's really a game changer.

Major streamers and networks and studios are looking for sound stages because they need a controlled environment to build sets, especially for a TV series, because if they have a successful season one and two and look at some of these shows that have continued for 11 and 14 years, you know, they can go back and forth and they have room to store wardrobe and they have a construction mill space and they can have their COVID lab, you know, these days, and so they're a major game changer.

Shawn Ashley: What do you see ahead in 2022?

Tava Sofsky: In 2022, I see hundreds, if not thousands, of Oklahomans engaging in this very unique and special industry. What I love about this industry is that you could be a painter, a seamstress, a driver, you know, you could be an actor, yes, or director, producer, but there's so many jobs behind the camera. And so, I think if we can continue balancing all of this, 2022 and beyond is going to be remarkable.

Dick Pryor: Clearly, Oklahoma is on the move. Tava Sofsky, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, thanks for joining us on Capitol Insider.

Tava Sofskyk: Thank you so much for having me. Happy holidays.

Dick Pryor:  And we'd like to hear from you. Email your questions to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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