As the aerospace industry — Oklahoma’s second largest employer — continues to boom, there is hope among legislators that the film business will prove just as successful.
Several years ago, Rep. Brian Hill began having discussions with people who saw the film industry as more than just a tourism idea.
“The simple answer was stages and staff,” he said.
Almost a year ago, two Oklahoma natives knocked on Hill’s office wanting to make the answer a reality. Prairie Surf co-founder Rachel Cannon, a Yukon High School graduate, and co-founder Matt Payne introduced to Hill the idea of purchasing the Cox Convention Center to later convert into one of North America’s largest soundstages.
The media company has five giant rooms with tall ceilings to build movie sets in a controlled environment, aka a soundstage.
Payne said Prairie Surf would not be where it is today if not for the representative’s support.
The Emmy award-winning filmmaker described himself as a lost Oklahoma kid, who was not driven in any particular area of school. However, he knew he enjoyed storytelling.
Payne discovered a film camp taught by Academy award-winning producer Gray Frederickson at Oklahoma City Community College in the early 2000s. Frederickson produced “The Godfather” films.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I had a purpose, and I had a path. I had a career.”
That path would end up taking him to Los Angeles, as a film career was not conducive in Oklahoma at the time. There, he, along with Cannon, became Frederickson’s first interns.
After experiencing various setwork jobs, Payne was itching to learn more about how to become a writer. The University of Oklahoma film school alum achieved his interest, as he spent 15 years in Hollywood writing for television series, like CBS’ “Vegas,” among other shows.
Having notched his successes under his belt, Payne said he and his family wanted a better quality of life, so they packed their bags and moved back home. Payne did not expect to continue his film career in Oklahoma.
That was until he saw what Oklahoma Film and Music Director Tava Maloy Sofsky was cultivating — small films were being produced and enthusiasm surrounded them. When Sofsky was hired in 2014, the state was averaging six productions a year, which brought in between $3-5 million per year.
In 2020, Oklahoma had 34 productions with $160 million direct fiscal spending.
“It is literally for employing Oklahomans,” Sofsky said.
Meanwhile, Payne was offered an opportunity to teach at Oklahoma City University, where he told his students that to succeed in the film industry, they would likely have to leave the state.
After not being content with his response to them, Payne began to think of ways Oklahoma could reach a larger film level. He looked at how the Pioneer Woman impacted Osage County, the Thunder’s influence on Oklahoma City and various others.
“What the spirit of Oklahoma is about is ‘Hey, let’s step into something that seems insane and almost impossible and let’s crush it,’” Payne said. “Let’s lean on our communities to build and grow it.”
To reach substantial impact, a soundstage would be needed. Since it takes millions of dollars to build one, Payne and Cannon looked around the Oklahoma City area to find a facility they could convert.
It wasn’t until Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said, “I think we can make it work” that the founders saw the Cox Convention Center as a definite possibility in March. Visions of greater economic impact cascaded from there.
Cue the state’s film incentive program that brings money in for Oklahoma jobs. The competitive incentive is capped at $30 million.
There were several keys in developing the incentive, such as the soundstage.
Others included multi-picture deals — a production company brings their people to film at a location for a certain amount of time and then leaves.
On the opposite spectrum, a television series brings their people and stays.
“They’re like a mini business that sets up and runs for years,” Payne said.
As streaming content continues to rise with platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, Payne said Prairie Surf is focusing on bringing more of that to Oklahoma City.
While Prairie Surf wants the metro area to be the hub for films in the state, it also wants to push moviemaking out to the rural landscapes Oklahoma has.
The company is working to ensure more jobs with accompanying training are being created for Oklahomans, as well. Most people automatically think of actors, producers and writers when the film industry comes to mind, Payne said.
There are hundreds of others within the field, such as the art department, which employs people who dress the actors, set the stages, cook food for scenes and much more.
“It’s how do we create opportunities for people from different professions to pivot into film,” Payne said.
“Killer of the Flower Moon,” which just wrapped filming in Pawhuska, employed an average of 600 people in 2020. This year, 350 Oklahomans were given jobs on the set.
The movie was one of 74 productions in the state throughout the last several years.
To engage with various fields, Payne said Prairie Surf is collaborating with career techs and higher education institutions to incorporate various film-related classes in a myriad of programs. Prairie Surf also works with local recording studio Castle Row.
Along with the employment aspect of the incentive, Payne said people’s return on investment is the boost to local economies, as film crews are spending money in cities throughout the state. Often with the production of series, some crew members will remain in a state and raise their own family, he added.
To accompany its 1.3 million-square-feet, Prairie Surf aims to grow its campus and provide Oklahomans the tools necessary to succeed in filmmaking.
“We want to make sure that not only are we employing people but that we are empowering Oklahoma storytellers,” Payne said.
As Prairie Surf continues to be a launch pad for films and series in the state, it is Payne’s hope that people will see the Oklahoma Standard in all creations.
While dream makers, incentives and employment are important, Sofsky said each community’s infrastructure is significant.
“We need permanent infrastructure built into Mustang and this surrounding community,” she said.
The film office recently developed a film-friendly certified program for communities to receive production exposure.
Those who are interested in learning more about Prairie Surf or the film office can visit okfilmmusic.org.