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Boom or Bust: Gaylord College’s Role in Securing the Future of Oklahoma Film

Gaylord Extra: February Edition

Boom or Bust: Gaylord College’s Role in Securing the Future of Oklahoma Film

By Sam Harp, Gaylord College Class of 2025

When you think of film and television production, cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City likely come to mind. Thanks to a slew of pioneers, such as Gray Frederickson, Rachel Cannon and Matt Payne, and groundbreaking tax incentives—including a 20% rebate to film in Oklahoma—Oklahoma has the opportunity to join them.

These people and policies have given Oklahomans the chance to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars and national attention, as well as the chance to tell stories and help shape the culture of the world around us. As Payne, co-founder and co-CEO of Prairie Surf Studios, said, “Job creation, economic impact and, ultimately, the films and series that are made here shape the way the world thinks about our state.”

When we think of successful media programs in the nation, New York and Los Angeles, household-name film programs come to mind: NYU and USC. If we continue to invest in our students and programs, the University of Oklahoma has the chance to join their ranks. 

As painful as it can be to admit, the story of our great state is “boom and bust.” In the past, time and time again, money has come and gone, and our fellow Oklahomans have been the ones to weather these tides. If we wish for sustainability, generational progress and wealth that will cement our state and news in the national hierarchy, it is crucial to commit to what is beneficial for the state.

We cannot guarantee every year will be a profitable one in our state’s leading industries: oil and gas. States and communities that maintain national significance and continue to attract new people, new jobs and new money seem to do so through a diversity of industries. I am under no illusion that film and entertainment can match the economic revenue of natural resources and health care. However, I will happily highlight information from Oklahoma Film and Music estimated $200 million yearly revenue from Oklahoma’s film and television industry and the $590 million impact of the OKC Thunder, respectively.

Dino Lalli, a Gaylord instructor, film producer, television host and experienced celebrity interviewer, observed that, “when a film comes to a state and town, particularly a specific area, money goes into that area. They hire locals [and] spend money locally for supplies, groceries, lumber and other ancillary things needed on a movie set.” The old saying goes, “if it makes dollars, it makes cents.”

It appears that in Oklahoma, the entertainment industry’s presence makes both. The United States boasts the world’s largest and most profitable entertainment industry that is expected to pass $1 trillion in value in 2024, and that’s excluding sports (Omdia). Thanks to the hard work of lobbyists and lawmakers, Oklahoma has the chance to secure our piece of that fortune and the opportunities it presents.

While money is quantifiable, cultural impact is less so; however, there are measurable impacts. One of these is an increase in Oklahoma City’s population: an increase of more than 100,000 between 2010 and 2020. This change is likely due to many factors, but the arrival and success of the NBA’s OKC Thunder in 2008 may be chief among them.

As stated before, the Thunder brings in well over a half-billion dollars to the state’s economy yearly, but money isn’t the only determining factor. If you have lived in our state long enough, you can see for yourself the impact owning a major entertainment franchise has had on our metro. A once-struggling downtown is now thriving with beautiful streets and towers inhabited by nationally recognizable corporations.  Thanks to a successful December 2023 vote to build a new $900 million arena to keep the Thunder in OKC through 2050, coupled with an increase in entertainment production—such as Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” Paramount’s “Tulsa King” and a host of projects set to be made in our state—it appears that our growth will persist, bringing with it an influx of people, jobs and money.

Knowing all of this, it may be safe to say that post-COVID, we are currently experiencing a revival, culturally speaking, at the very least. The world is paying attention to our young NBA franchise, and thanks to a resurgence of Westerner culture, Oklahoma artists like Zach Bryan and the Turnpike Troubadours—as well as films and stories tailored by hardworking Oklahomans—are flourishing.

This revival of our state’s culture has been incredible to watch and benefit from; however, as a lifelong Oklahoman, I can’t help but wonder how we stop the other shoe from dropping. How do we break the curse of the “bust?” My solution: Pour into what we know works. Invest in the next generation with everything we can.

One thing is abundantly clear: our state has no shortage of storytelling talent. Actors Bill Hader, Olivia Munn, Tim Blake Nelson and Brad Pitt hail from Oklahoma. Alongside them, filmmakers such as Ron Howard, Sterlin Harjo and the late Gray Frederickson have not only represented our people and stories but also brought storytellers from elsewhere to us, including Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” and Scorsese’s aforementioned “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

On the business side, lobbyists and entrepreneurs such as Rachel Cannon and Matt Payne—both mentored by Frederickson—and their collaborators have demonstrated that Oklahomans can thrive within the national entertainment industry.

The challenge lies in our desire to not only continue our success but also to exceed our past achievements. To do this, we need to nurture and embrace the ideas of a new generation of storytellers—those who either originate from or come to Oklahoma—to solidify our stake in the wider film industry.

“Filmmakers from Oklahoma and living in Oklahoma need to make films here. That is essential and incredibly important. The more small- and medium-sized productions are done here on a regular basis, then larger ones are more attracted to the state,” Lalli said.

There is a reason we say, “There’s Only One Oklahoma.” OU is our state’s leading source of higher education, and Gaylord has the opportunity to build upon an already successful Creative Media Production program. However, we can only do this if we continue to invest in ourselves and grow.

“Gaylord and other institutions all need to concentrate on training students in not only below-the-line positions, but above the line positions, too, such as directors, producers and writers. But we need a well-trained below-the-line, rather large crew base so when a production comes here, they can hire more and more local crewmembers,” Lalli said.

Film and television stand apart from other industries. They are unique sectors that attract other supporting businesses and industries. By building on the success of our predecessors and investing in our programs and young talent, we, as a state, may capture and hold some of the magic that has brought renown to Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York.

“The opportunity to keep film in our state should be the same as in any industry. We now have several sound stages in the state. We have amazing locations. Now, our crew base needs to continue to grow, and our film incentives need to remain competitive,” Lalli contends.

Our stories shape the world around us. Although I’m no economic expert, in my view, the opportunity to be the voice behind those stories represents an invaluable investment. As Payne said, “We will always be grateful for projects that seek to film in Oklahoma because of our strong crew base and our competitive incentive, but to really put us on the map, we need filmmakers coming from within.”

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