In 1997, indie film guru John Pierson released the seminal tome on getting films made without the benefit of a major studio, Spike Mike Slackers & Dykes. That book conveyed a true sense of the Herculean task that is seeing an independent film from acorn to tree, and it didn't even tell you how to make a good one.
All of the hoops and hurdles to be leapt through, the endless hours, the gamesmanship, the unforeseen catastrophes that can befall an independent film production before a single frame of film could be shot were so mind-boggling that it seemed miraculous that 90 percent of the films completed in any given year ever got to the finish line.
In Tulsa, the interest in making independent films is not lacking, though the opportunities to do so are. There aren't that many local artists trying to make ambitious, professional-grade indie films here. The enclave of local talent that is pushing hardest to make those films in Tulsa (and make it pay), seem to be best known amongst themselves. But there's a reason for that.
To get a movie made is one thing, and with enough gumption you can even get it on screens around town. But, it turns out that making people aware of you when you have no money, in Tulsa and beyond, is an entirely different beast.
It's The Economy, Stupid
Marketing and business savvy are the Achilles heel of many would-be local productions, even where the talent and technical aspects are marketable. Then, there's the money. Particularly, when so many would-be filmmakers are in debt due to equipment and production costs, or even the cost of the education it took to get them to the point they could make a movie in the first place.
There aren't a lot of ways to fund a film in Tulsa, but depending on savvy, wits and perseverance, it can be done. Although, in the current economic climate, it's likely to cause hypertension.
"Marketing, I think, is something Tulsa filmmakers are weak on," said Ryan Dunlap, a local filmmaker.
Dunlap is putting the finishing touches on his first feature, Greyscale -- a neo-noir drama that he wrote, directed, produced and stars in, alongside Doug Jones (Hellboy) and Tim Russ (Star Trek: Voyager). (To get a better perspective on another key player in the film Greyscale, read the profile on Doug Bauer on page 17.)
"It's because it requires money," Dunlap said. "If you can't get the money together to shoot something with professionals that know what they're doing, then you generally don't have the money to let people know about it."
It's a familiar refrain.
"A filmmaker in town is either going to need a really good day job or rich parents, or somebody who believes in them," said Starr Hardgrove, another local filmmaker.
Hardgrove produces, directs and acts in local theater, he's also acted in films, such as, Jesus Fish and Pearl. He started the Tulsa Creative Network Web site when he found himself in need of actors.
Now, what began as a sort of creative Craigslist has become a social networking site for all varieties of Tulsa filmmakers, artists and craftspeople.
Keeping its grassroots is Hardgrove's primary goal.
But the gulf between artistic ambition, money and a serviceable knowledge of the industry is still a wide one. Those are necessary elements that pull a project together.
"Business sense, from what I see, is lacking." Hardgrove said. His words carried the sting of personal experience.
So getting a film off the ground is tough -- that's hardly a news flash. And awareness of what and who is out there is largely confined to the community itself, which begs the question: What are we missing?
International film festivals find homes in many cities, and Tulsa is ideal for one, too. The success of the BOK Center and the burgeoning resurrection of downtown, coupled with the continued success of homegrown events like Dfest, give the impression of fertile ground for an international film festival in T-Town. International film festivals attract international press in a way more permanent than any misguided bid for the 2020 Olympics can bring.
Bare Bones probably has the most awareness of the regional film fests. A quasi-international event founded by indie film makers Oscar and Shironbutterfly Ray, Bare Bones -- with its sister fest Script2Screen -- is meant to be a showcase for low-budget films and endeavors to champion local auteurs (filmmakers who write, direct and produce their own projects). Hardgrove believes their problem is one that is shared by many filmmakers in the community.
"The problem with Bare Bones is my problem with a lot of things," he said. "I don't think they market themselves well. They're just like me in the sense that they are amateurs that want to step up and do professional stuff."
Bare Bones, which starts on April 15 and runs through April 25 in Muskogee, Okla., has done much to encourage filmmakers to work hard, hone their craft, exhibit the results and get crucial information out there that one would need in order to sell a film. But is that enough? Hardgrove wants something bigger.
"When I've been to Bare Bones, I've enjoyed it," Hardgrove said. "I enjoyed seeing some of the films that were there. It has this kinda grassroots feel to it, which is very cool. But it's in Muskogee. Tulsa needs a film festival. What if Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) wanted to come to, for the lack of a better name 'The Route 66 Film Festival' in Tulsa, Okla. and show the latest version of Red Sonja, or whatever he's doing? What that does is it starts to get us in contact with professionals in the industry. That's what it did for South by Southwest."
Now, because of that festival, Austin is an internationally recognized hub of the film industry.
The irony is that there are plenty of people in the professional film industry with connections to the Tulsa area, some whom still live here. But they don't tend to work here.
Whether they are actors, producers or directors, if they made a name for themselves, or have gotten any traction in the business, they had to do it somewhere else. This is especially true of actors.
It might not be much easier in Los Angeles, but earning a living wage as an actor in Tulsa is nearly impossible. Opportunities to make money in theater are non-existent, and film productions are not numerous enough. Thus, talented people are hemorrhaged and head for greener pastures to pursue their goals. Bill Hader didn't wind up on Saturday Night Live because he stayed here.
Dunlap puts a finer point on it, "Right now, I don't see a sustainable professional industry for filmmaking (in Tulsa)."
If You Build It...
Many people who start making films, short or otherwise, are doing it for fun. The falling prices of digital cameras, easy to use editing software, combined with groups of like-minded friends who want to create, ensure that access to the basics is within reach of those who have an interest in making a film of some kind.
But for many that's where it ends, with no thought of (or shot at) selling and distributing what they've created, or using it as a building block to ascend to the next rung on the ladder. For those that have such budding ambitions, Oklahoma provides less than fertile ground.
The biggest audiences locally that a filmmaker can cater to are the faith-based and Native American markets.
Director Tracy Trost is enjoying some success in the former area; he's got the film Find Me under his belt, the story of a group of kids who get caught up in a kidnapping plot when they find a ransom note while playing an internet/GPS-based scavenger hunt game.
He's also currently in production of a Christmas-themed film, A Christmas Snow.
Holdenville-based Native American director Sterlin Harjo went all the way to the Sundance Film Festival last year with his drama Barking Water. It's now enjoying a tour at film festivals all over the country -- none of which, needless to say, are in Tulsa.
"I think there's an economy for it," Hardgrove said, "but we have to find the avenues of the economy to be able to do it. Typical example, one of the things I see in the community right now is that there's a whole lot of places to show your film, but there are no places to sell it."
The nature of national theater chains' contractual obligations to the studio system are not a particularly equitable. That's why you have to take out a second mortgage if you want to buy popcorn and a bottle of Dasani for a night at the movies.
If there was enough of a community fan base for local film productions and talents, the chains might be convinced to set aside a screen or two for them, and then be afforded the opportunity to strike more equitable deals with the local producers. It might cut into a film's bottom line, but it also lends it the legitimacy of playing at a national chain theater.
But ultimately, outside of directly selling your film to a distributor of some kind, it's the film festivals that create the marketplace, the opportunities to sell it, and the means to get it seen. Even then, there are roadblocks for local filmmakers if they want to premiere a film at a deal-making festival.
Locally produced feature projects like Greyscale or The Rock and Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher (read "Local.Camera.Action on urbantulsa.com), would be disqualified from many fests if they had paying hometown premieres. Bear in mind, Sterlin Harjo's Barking Water had its Tulsa run at The Circle after winning Official Selection at Sundance. Despite the opportunities for local exhibition, without an international film festival in Tulsa, the venues that jumpstart dreams lay elsewhere.
And that still leaves the elephant in the room: the Internet.
"I've been involved with a couple of films that have exhibited at local theaters and those local theaters are for rent," Hardgrove said. "(With Jesus Fish), we rented the Riverwalk cinema ... and I think Cinemark provides some rental capabilities ... but I do know the Internet is winning."
The shifting nature of digital distribution could be considered a blessing and a curse for local indies and independent film in general. The trend of people, in lieu of going to the theater, preferring to rent films through Netflix and Redbox; watch films and television through some form of streaming media, or as a digital file on a portable device, is quickly changing the distribution landscape.
Netflix and Redbox are of particular interest because a filmmaker can sell his film directly to them, albeit in a deal that might not even make them back their production costs and comes with the risk of cannibalizing their independent sales efforts.
Also, the filmmaker is trading the legitimacy of the cinema for what is essentially a direct-to-DVD-style market, which has never been a harbinger of quality.
Then there's YouTube, a path of least resistance because all you need is your own channel and something to put on it. It's particularly friendly to the short filmmaker, though at that point you are out in a wilderness of tweens begging the world lay off Britney Spears, Epic Bearded Man beat downs, and piano-playing cats. Add social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to your cake batter of self-promotion, and a persistent filmmaker can get people's attention with enough key strokes.
"Social media has helped filmmakers immensely," Dunlap said. "Anything good, anything of high quality is going to get passed around; anything worth getting excited about is going to get passed around. If it's crap, it's going to die."
Is it myopic to think that a lack of industry in Tulsa is holding artists back with these other (admittedly non-theatrical) options available? In a few years, will theatrical distribution of independent film be all but dead in a landscape where 3-D blockbusters reign in the multiplex, and only the major metropolitan cities have enough art-houses to make a dent?
In a future where people don't even want physical media, will the cost benefits of not having to manufacture discs for your little indie film outweigh the devaluation of what is seen, more and more, as a cheap commodity? At this point, that's speculation, but it's the kind speculation any serious filmmaker should be indulging in.
"Originally, I wanted to be able to work with them (Netflix, Redbox) and be able to have a Tulsa page you could hit and rent Tulsa movies," Hardgrove said.
But it's a moot point if you can't get your movie made, to begin with.
The State of the State
An international film festival would be great, but for Oklahoma a first step would be for the state to officially promote/provide incentives for filmmakers, local and international. The lack of an industry here doesn't just apply to an actual corporate presence, but also the state institutions that are supposed to foster growth for film productions in the state, both local and from the outside.
Outside productions are of particular importance because they employ local technicians, craftspeople and actors; they spend money at local businesses; and enable connections between those in the local film community and the bigger guns in the industry. Right now, it's another example of less than fertile ground.
One such office is the Tulsa Film Commission.
"It doesn't exist," Hardgrove said. "The city of Tulsa has a film office that was manned by Patrick Chalfant (who) was writing speeches for Kathy Taylor. I've talked a little with Tom Green from the Chamber of Commerce, and he has become the representative for the Oklahoma Film and Music Commission, from Tulsa."
Meanwhile, the state does have a rebate system for what it considers low-budget filmmaking, though the concept of micro-budget filmmaking doesn't seem to have crossed the radar.
"We're at 38 percent rebate of some kind to get a film done. Anything over $500,000, you can apply for a rebate to get 38 percent of your film budget back. That needs to be raised. We need more people calling their senators, writing legislation," Hardgrove said. "There's a guy in town named Chad Burris, who's a lawyer who's done a lot of really good work for the film industry. He was integral in proposing a bill to raise that (rebate) amount."
Currently, neighboring state Missouri offers up to a 35 percent tax credit for company's expenditures as well as a 30 percent rebate for out-of-state cast and crew members. Texas offers a tiered program with an incentive between 5 and 15 percent and can give 29.25 percent for projects spending $5 million or more.
Raising Oklahoma's rate could prove to be helpful. Lowering the bar couldn't hurt, either. In the current economy, $500,000 is not an insignificant chunk of change. The Blair Witch Project was made for $22,000. Paranormal Activity was made for even less. Both of those films went on to gross hundreds of millions. That can be done here, too -- with motivation.
What kind of windfall could Oklahoma reap if it invested in its local artists, both monetarily and in retaining our best and brightest? Is there anyone that forward thinking at work in the Capitol or City Hall?
In the current state of billion dollar budget shortfalls it sounded like the kind of program people would want axed if they knew it existed. Even when the economy is good, certain sectors have a dim view of publicly funded arts. There are people that are forward-thinking in the local community, but for how much longer? "I think a lot of people have left," Hardgrove said.
Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?
Ryan Dunlap hasn't left. To be clear, many talented filmmakers call Oklahoma home and wouldn't have it any other way -- even though the reality of success in the film industry would seem to dictate a connection with points West and South. Nevertheless, people like Tracy Trost, Sterlin Harjo and Titus Jackson are working talents whose names repeatedly came up in conversation.
Dunlap's film, Greyscale, could have been a feature film straight out of Hollywood. How did this local filmmaker pull it off, though? How did he cut his path to make a movie that looks like a real movie, with real Hollywood stars?
"Honestly, it's who you know," Dunlap said. "I happened to meet a guy in L.A. on a forum and he had cast Doug [Jones] in a short film and that fell through. But Doug is just a cool guy and says, 'Hey, you want hang out anyway?' (I) threw Greyscale in to the mix, he's like, 'Yeah, I'd like that.' So after kind of dancing around with his agent trying to convince him ... yes, we're going to have a semi-real movie and showing them some footage he said, 'Yeah, Doug can come play.' He came out for next to nothing."
Dunlap had started his own production company by that point, Daros Films, with two good friends and his wife, ostensibly to get Greyscale off the ground. He started shooting the film on nights and weekends around Tulsa in September 2008. By then, he had already done the legwork in amassing the equipment he needed to produce the film.
"The way that I was able to acquire all my equipment," Dunlap said, "was I had borrowed equipment and did all the Make Your Own Commercial contests, and I would win those and I would ... be able to buy an HD camera. Now all of my entries are going to be even better because I have better technology, and they kind of stand out from everybody else. Brick by brick I had to build up through contests, and my own investment in that."
Now that Dunlap stands on the cusp of having a finished product, he's looking to the future, hoping that success will allow him, under the Daros banner, to take Greyscale to the world, and to make more films -- and also foster new projects with the other, hard-working, local filmmakers who are diligently pushing toward the same goal. If the environment is to be created, and excitement is to be generated, they'll be the ones to do it. And they'll have to depend on each other to make it happen.
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