Reel 'Em In

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While residents might be aware of the many benefits of Oklahoma, isn’t it time that the country’s best-kept secret became common knowledge?

 The Oklahoma Film & Music Office thinks so. Since its inception in 1979 by then-Governor George Nigh, the commission has worked to not only share Oklahoma’s benefits, but also to make the state even stronger by creating more opportunities and more jobs.

With the mission of promoting Oklahoma to outside filmmakers and musicians, the OF&MO (an office of the Department of Tourism) offers many benefits for working in Oklahoma, such as a rebate program, technical support and equipment, and help with permitting and local jurisdiction.

Director Jill Simpson says that the organization has had a tremendous impact on the state.

“When we started tracking our economic impact in 2005, our numbers were roughly $11 million, and now in fiscal year 2011, we’re approaching the $40 million mark,” Simpson says.

And, Simpson adds, this recent number only reflects the films that were accepted for the commission’s rebate incentive program.

This program is the main driving force to bring filmmakers into almost any state. Simpson says that the rebate, which is $5 million per year for the OF&MO, is often the first selling point to bring people here, but that there are many other benefits as well.

“In addition to the incentives, there is a low cost of doing business in Oklahoma,” Simpson says. “It’s easy to do business here; there’s no traffic and less red tape. We also have a very wide range of geographic diversity.”

The commission is currently at the peak of its programs, and actually had to temporarily stop accepting applications because the budget had already been used.

“But we’ve really turned what could have been a negative thing into a positive one,” Simpson says. “With our program capped at $5 million, you’re not going to get the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. But, we work to develop our niche, which is quality, independent films.”

Simpson adds that there is a false perception that the rebate money goes right out of the state.

“It’s a lot like the oil industry – with the profits that they make, they can dig more wells and create more jobs here,” she says.

Still, the rebate budget has been threatened by proposed budget cutbacks, but hopes are that the small investment brings enough of a return to maintain its viability.

The commission’s website also offers several databases to aid filmmakers in their projects, making it easy to search for locations and crews.

“That’s our YellowPages,” Simpson says, “and it’s at no cost to the users.”

A music guide, with similar functions to help out musicians and music industries, was launched at this year’s Norman Music Festival.

One of the commission’s major efforts in the music industry is Oklahoma’s very own venue at the famed South by Southwest festival in Austin. A presence at the festival since 2005, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber approached the OF&MO about an Oklahoma-branded venue. Enter the Buffalo Lounge.

“We wanted branding that sponsored Oklahoma, and there is really nothing better than the buffalo – it’s catchy, fun and easy to remember. Now it attracts thousands every day. We feel like we can stick an Oklahoma flag in the ground down there in Austin,” Simpson says.

By promoting the state at events such as SXSW and by bringing people in, the OF&MO secures goodwill ambassadors, Simpson says, particularly since there is often negative pushback when she approaches filmmakers.

“About 80 percent of the time when I approach someone about coming here, I can see from their body language that they have a ‘prove-it-to-me’ attitude about Oklahoma. But we always see a change come over them once they actually come here.

That’s what makes the difference,” Simpson says.

After working in Bartlesville, actor Ben Affleck said he “didn’t know communities like this still existed,” Simpson says, and adds that actress Rachel McAdams “absolutely loved” her experience with the generous and welcoming people in Oklahoma.

“That’s the value of getting our culture out there,” Simpson says. “When we get our image out there after the films come out, you can’t buy that kind of marketing.”

And it is just “that kind of marketing” that works cyclically to continue to bring in even more filmmakers and musicians, Department of Tourism Deputy Director Claudia Conner says, and this further helps the economy.

“The filmmakers buy things around the area where they are filming, whether it’s a hotel or a restaurant, and they provide jobs for people in the area too, like sound technicians,” Conner says. “The commission brings jobs in, and there’s a cool factor involved too, kind of like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.”

And the commission works to do all of this with a very small staff: less than ten employees.

“I’m amazed at what they can do with as little as they have,” Conner says.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until the other 49 states recognize Oklahoma’s greatness.

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