In the fall of 2005, just months after Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to Louisiana, the New Orleans Hornets tipped off the first of their two NBA seasons in downtown Oklahoma City.
In the wake of catastrophe, tragedy and trauma, the Sooner State’s capital showed the world it was a big-league city, setting up the court for the OKC Thunder to move to town in 2008.
In much the same way, Oklahomans’ welcoming poise in the face of another calamity – the global COVID-19 pandemic – has helped the state’s burgeoning film and television industry score multiple slam dunks over the past two years.
“Overall, I believe COVID has changed the landscape of Oklahoma’s film industry but for the better because our people and communities united and chose to find solutions during such uncertain times,” Oklahoma Film + Music Office Director Tava Maloy Sofsky said in an email.
“From Gov. Kevin Stitt deeming the motion picture and recording industries as essential industries in June of 2020, along with our state’s borders and businesses opening, it was honestly like the Land Run for films pivoting from other states (and) wanting to come film in our beautiful and pro-business state. ”
With Stitt inking a new, larger film incentive last year, industry watchers don’t expect to see the rush of movie and TV projects to slow anytime soon.
Oklahoma becomes the first state to resume filming during a pandemic
In June 2020, producer-director Danny Roth completed production on the feature film “Harvest of the Heart” (later retitled “A Country Romance”) in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. The Michigan moviemaker’s romantic drama was one of the first live-action productions to start in North America after the pandemic brought TV and filmmaking to a halt in March 2020.
“We were the first state to return to work after the stay-at-home orders, and I think it just put Oklahoma on the map for a lot of producers and studios that hadn’t really heard the Oklahoma buzz yet,” Emily said O’Banion, a health safety supervisor and the owner of Oklahoma Set Medics.
“It created a real spotlight on what could be filmed here.”
In May 2020, Roth contacted O’Banion and asked if she was interested in becoming the “COVID officer” on his first movie to film in the Sooner State. By the time the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Directors Guild of America and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees had released their “The Safe Way Forward” report that summer, Roth was on Day 13 of the 16-day shoot on the romantic drama.
“I wrote the protocols for that, just put what I thought sounded like good ideas.… We got the protocols approved from SAG, and that was the first feature film that SAG (green) lit in the post-COVID world,” O ‘ Banion recalled.
“It was a very positive thing for Oklahoma film. With the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of success in filming under the COVID protocols and drawing more productions here because of the innovation of getting back to work the quickest. … And I would say the strictest protocol shows that I’ve worked on have been in Oklahoma the first 18 months of COVID. ”
Oklahoma achieves movie and TV milestones during COVID-19
Becoming the first state to reopen for filming after the coronavirus outbreak was the first but certainly not the last milestone of the state’s movie and TV industry has achieved during the pandemic. Since early 2020, the Oklahoma Film + Music Office has hosted a record-breaking 65 films, providing more than 11,000 career opportunities and direct spending by the productions in excess of $ 170 million, Sofsky said.
In 2021, the groundbreaking immigrant drama “Minari,” which was made in Tulsa, became a darling of the cinematic awards season, winning a best supporting actress Oscar for Korean performer Youn Yuh-jung.
Also last year, Martin Scorsese’s eagerly awaited adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon” became the largest movie to ever film in Oklahoma, while the trailblazing streaming show “Reservation Dogs” became the state’s first scripted television series.
The first mainstream TV show on which every writer, director and regular performer series is Indigenous, “Reservation Dogs” in March won two Film Independent Spirit Awards – for best new scripted series and best ensemble cast in a new scripted series – on the Santa Monica Pier in California and then began filming its anticipated second season in Tulsa and Okmulgee.
“It’s been a whirlwind. My life’s changed and to be able to share what we share with this show has been a blessing, and I think people really needed something that was hopeful and truthful during this pandemic,” Sterlin Harjo, Tulsa-based Native American co-creator and executive producer of “Reservation Dogs,” told press backstage at the awards show.
Filming also started in March in OKC and Tulsa on another high-profile streaming series: the “Untitled Tulsa Project” starring iconic actor Sylvester Stallone. Expected to debut in the fall, the planned Paramount + show created by Taylor Sheridan – the mastermind behind the hit shows “Yellowstone,” “1883” and “Mayor of Kingstown” – is also known as “The Tulsa King.”
State film business experiences growth behind the scenes
As is typical in the film business, what’s happening behind the scenes is as important as what’s happening in front of the cameras.
“We’ve been fortunate to witness first-hand so many success stories amid the pandemic, as the state’s film and television industries evolved and expanded (and still are) to better serve the needs of this creative sector,” Sofsky said.
While COVID has certainly brought many Oklahoma challenges on personal and professional levels, the people of Oklahoma are born resilient, and our local crew, including health and safety companies, labs and small businesses, collaborated with major Hollywood studios and independent producers to find ways to rise above and build an even stronger industry by innovating this new frontier. ”
Last May, Stitt signed the “Filmed in Oklahoma Act of 2021,” boosting the annual cap on the state’s film incentive program from $ 8 million to $ 30 million.
Plus, the state’s film rebate isn’t the only one around these days: The cities of Bethany and Oklahoma City, as well as the Cherokee Nation Film Office, have all launched their own film incentive programs in the past year.
Also since the pandemic started: Prairie Surf Studios opened in the former Cox Convention Center, while Green Pastures Studio is operating in a converted elementary school in Spencer. Inventive crew training programs are popping up across the state, and local businesses like O’Banion’s are expanding to meet the growing industry’s needs.
‘I started getting calls right from the get-go: Working on’ Reagan ‘morphed into’ The Unbreakable Boy ‘and that then went into’ American Underdog. ‘ By ‘American Underdog,’ I was just inundated with producers and studios reaching out, offering, ‘Can you do our project, and if you can’t do our project, can you consult?’ ”O’Banion said.
Her Oklahoma Set Medics now boasts about 45 full-time employees either working on projects or taking a break but still on her active roster, up from 30 workers a year ago.
As with hosting the Hornets after Hurricane Katrina, she said Oklahoma’s ability to respond positively to catastrophe has been a boon to the film industry.
“Even filming in another state, when you mention Oklahoma, the question is gonna be, ‘Oh, you guys are filming a lot. … What happened over in Oklahoma?'” O’Banion said.
“It’s kind of crazy that COVID was a catalyst in this boom, but it really was. … There’s definitely still a buzz. There’s still a momentum. There’s still a lot of locals that have really come up the last few years that are working in high demand. So, it’s a very exciting time. “