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Hollywood on the Prairie: Oklahoma film industry growing, bringing millions to the state

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Posted at 2:32 PM, Aug 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-07 01:03:13-04

TULSA, Okla. — Oklahoma is rolling out the red carpet for Hollywood.

“It’s really exciting to be in the industry now," said Mark Gullickson, owner of Mozee productions.

Hollywood has come to the prairie with films like the critically-acclaimed Minari, which was shot in Tulsa. Stillwater, starring Matt Damon, was partially filmed in its namesake town. And, of course, there's "Killers of the Flower Moon" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and directed by Martin Scorcese which is currently filming in Osage County.

But Oklahoma hasn’t always been a movie maker’s destination.

“17 years ago, it was a completely different landscape in Oklahoma," said Chris Freihofer, casting director of Freihofer Casting. "I mean, we would work on maybe one movie a year, maybe.”

Freihofer’s casting agency, Freihofer Casting, places actors in hundreds of Oklahoma projects. The agency has grown from working one movie a year to 13 films in 2020 despite the pandemic.

“I have seen people go from maybe getting an audition, actors, local actors, going from one to two, maybe three film auditions a year, and those films mostly didn’t shoot in Oklahoma," Freihofer said. "And now there are actors in Oklahoma that are making their living in front of the camera.”

Even six years ago, the state averaged six movies per year bringing in an $8 million direct fiscal impact. This current fiscal year, there are 34 productions in the works.

“Now, it has come back just boom," Gullickson said. "It’s booming big time right now.”

A $161 million boom. That’s the direct fiscal impact. The economic effect increases even more when you consider all of the local businesses affected.

“That’s conservatively close to a $400 million economic impact with all the ancillary spending and just money in Oklahomans pockets as well as Oklahoma businesses," said Tava Maloy Sofsky, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.

Just ask Overlees-Woods Lumber Co. in Bartlesville. The lumber yard provides supplies for the set of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The movie generated 40 percent of its business during the first half of the year.

“They’ve helped us tremendously," said Jay McKissick, owner of Overlees-Woods Lumber Company. "And I can’t express my appreciation to them for filming in this area. It’s been an honor and a delight to do it. It’s certainly elevated the percentage of our business and getting stuff out the door. We’re very pleased. And are probably going to cry when they leave."

Don’t expect the industry to slow down any time soon. Gov. Kevin Stitt recently signed the “Filmed in Oklahoma Act of 2021," which increases the state’s film and TV incentives.

“What it means is more business in Oklahoma, more jobs in Oklahoma," Sofsky said.

These projects are bringing hundreds of jobs of all kinds to the Sooner State.

Todd Ruffin, owner of Midwest Drone Productions, got in the drone business in 2015. He worked on the upcoming TV show "Reservation Dogs," which filmed around Green Country, and on "Minari."

“At the end of the movie, I’ve been to see it in theater, our names, me and Greg’s name, are right there in the credits," Ruffin said. "'Midwest Drone Productions, Todd and Greg.' And when you see that in the theater it’s big, it’s big.”

Every production needs sound.

Mark Gullickson recently started doing location audio full-time. He said Tulsa has an advantage over bigger movie markets like L.A., New York and Atlanta.

“There’s several guys here in town that do what I do, but if I try to go to some of those markets, they’re just so saturated with sound guys, they’re so saturated with cinematographers, with gaffers, with grip and electric people," Gullickson said.

Grab your popcorn and head to the theater, the Oklahoma film industry is here to stay.

“There’s really talented people here in Oklahoma that are really passionate about what they do in the film industry and everybody’s taking notice of that," Ruffin said.

“It’s just a really exciting time for Oklahoma to be on the map," Freihofer said. "And not just, ‘oh, that filmed in Oklahoma.’ but now, we are a destination for filming.”

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