Fade out

Senate Bill 1623 has made it past the state Senate Finance Committee and is awaiting further action in the Senate. Authored by Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, it would eliminate a number of special tax credits and subsidies in order to compensate for revenue lost by reducing the state’s top marginal income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 4.75 percent.

above Casey Affleck on the set of “The Killer Inside Me,” a 2010 film that was shot in Oklahoma

However, some in Oklahoma’s film industry are organizing opposition to the measure, which would slash the 35 percent film incentive program reimbursement to 17.5 percent next year and eliminate it entirely in 2014.
Many say the rebate, which has a $5 million annual cap, not only has attracted several movie productions to Oklahoma, but also helps grow the state’s independent film community.

Sean Patrick Eaton, co-owner of OkieWood Productions, said ending the incentive would cripple filming in the state and spur an exodus of those currently working in the industry.

“It will end future film production in Oklahoma,” said Eaton, whose Oklahoma City company provides technical assistance to movie productions. “If we don’t keep the film industry here, the same thing is going to happen. It’s not just about ‘Hey, let’s be creative people here in Oklahoma.’ It’s about ‘Hey, let’s build this industry.’”

But Mazzei said the incentive program has not proven itself to be an economic booster for the state.

“The film rebate program … doesn’t bring to Oklahoma any long-term, high-paying jobs,” he said. “The jobs are short-term, needless to say, and they aren’t the types of jobs we’re looking for in Oklahoma that last for a long time, that are greater than the average income and can help raise the standard of living in Oklahoma.

“It’s important to have incentives that return a significant net economic benefit. As much as we all love movies, the film rebate program just doesn’t meet that criteria.”

Triple return
Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film & Music Office, said the $5 million rebated to filmmakers each year produces at least $15 million in economic development for the state, an economic development ratio of 3-to-1.
The program is necessary if films are to be made in Oklahoma, Simpson added, since 46 other states offer such incentives.

She cited the example of Thunderstruck, a Warner Bros. motion picture featuring Oklahoma City Thunder star player Kevin Durant. Producers wanted to shoot in Oklahoma. Because the film incentive cap of $5 million already had been committed for that fiscal year, however, producers decided to do principal filming in Louisiana, with only a few shots done in Oklahoma.

right Jill Simpson, Oklahoma Film & Music Office director

“It would kill any momentum. We’ve worked for years to build this program to where it’s at now,” Simpson said. “If one has the perception that films are going to come without the rebate, they are mistaken. They will go where they can get the best financial incentives.”

She said the program is transparent and ensures accountability.

“There is a perception we are just giving incentives to people out of state and they’re taking the money and leaving, but in reality, it’s growing jobs here in Oklahoma,” she said. “In 95 percent of the cases, these films are pumping the rebate right back into their film budget, hiring more crew and buying more goods and services.”

Imperative aid
Film producer Nick Gonda said he can attest to the importance of the rebate program. He recently worked with critically acclaimed director Terrence Malick on a picture shot in Bartlesville and Ponca City and starring Ben Affleck. Gonda said the state’s incentives program, along with assistance from the city of Bartlesville, prompted producers to choose Oklahoma over prospective out-of-state locations.

“There’s a common misconception that incentives are added benefits to filmmakers, versus what they really are — which are necessities for independent films to be made,” said Gonda, who also co-produced Malick’s Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life.

“Without the subsidies provided by incentives, in many cases it would never be possible to make the films we’re making.”

Gonda said the benefits to communities and the state of having a film being shot in that area are real and ongoing.

“I think sometimes the fact that films … versus a new factory or new permanent infrastructure, sometimes people don’t see the long-term benefit of an incentive package,” he said.

Photo by Shannon Cornman

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