Any serious filmmaker in Tulsa will tell you the biggest problem with the film landscape here is not a dearth of scenic locations. Neither is it the lack of creative and ambitious talent nor the hard work of the Film Commission's Office.
It's the lack of industry. As much as in the realm of music, the ambitious of Tulsa's creative, cinematic crop too often get whisked off to the compass points --- particularly out west -- in order to achieve success and notoriety in the business. It's nearly a fait accompli if they want to earn a real living pursuing their muses and dreams.
L.A. is the defacto nexus of American filmmaking, a Machine City whose infrastructure has crept into the desert of the real. New Mexico -- known jokingly as Tamalewood -- Texas and Louisiana are among a few states that are now integral film production hubs of the Hollywood system. How did that happen, you might wonder?
They did it by emulating a film production rebate program that was first passed into Oklahoma law over a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, the industry interest afforded those states has elevated The Santa Fe Film Festival and South By Southwest in Austin to among the most well regarded film festivals in the nation.
Let's (Re) Cap!
Almost two years ago, for a story about the local film scene, I wrote, "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."
That hasn't essentially changed. The kind of film festival that gets you noticed nationally, and by the industry, is not here.
Be you an actor, director, lighting guy (or girl), best boy (there isn't a PC name for that), grip, gaffer, put-upon production assistant or any of the myriad and necessary human components that make up the infrastructure of a film crew, there is no consistent market for those talents or much outside industry to support them. Neither is there an internationally (or even nationally) anticipated film festival in place to exhibit their work to audiences from far outside the region, much less by audiences from other countries.
The Oklahoma Film and Music Office's rebate program, passed in 2000, was the plan to bring in outside industry to augment job opportunities for Oklahoma filmmakers and craftspeople--attracting big, budget Hollywood productions (as well as smaller ones) to shoot amongst Oklahoma's varied topographies and unique municipalities -- while spending money in the state on human resources and logistical necessities. (Hotels, restaurants, set equipment, etc.)
Capped at $5 million per year with a 37 percent reimbursement, recent productions such as The Killer Inside Me, starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, which shot in Guthrie, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Cordell and Enid are among many that have filmed here since the program's inception. According to the Film Commission's website, The Killer Inside Me producers spent just shy of $3 million in Oklahoma of which they stood to be refunded $449,000. For every year, (since it was truly funded, more on that later) the program posts positive economic impacts ranging for $11 to $25 million dollars.
But it was only due to the hard work of the Commission to attract those productions that they happened at all, as surrounding states like Texas offer more aggressive and comprehensive programs -- Texas offers no caps for 5 percent to 35 percent of a budget, the minimum being $250,000 -- not to mention industry infrastructure. (i.e. soundstages, post-production houses, etc.) Until Oklahoma levels the playing field, producers will go elsewhere to meet their needs. Thus we bleed talent.
While grants and rebates from the OFMO attract outside productions to Oklahoma those productions effectiveness in growing the local talent base and keeping it here is inhibited by a lack of a true industry presence. One of the cornerstones that may enable that presence to arise is a legitimate, renowned and big international film festival.
A Decade in the Making
Last year, local attorney, film lover and businessman Joel Hulett -- owner of Randr Tees and The Soda Shoppe, as well as film distributor Black Mesa Entertainment and its production arm Dolphin Bay Films -- got into the film festival game, with the First Annual Oklahoma Horror Film Festival. Boasting a slate of over 65 films, workshops on film craft and business, panels with a vibrant talent presence, some coming from all over the country, the OHFF was the first salvo in the larger battle to bring some sort of true international film festival to Tulsa. Aided by investment capital from his partner Jack Clark, and his tight-knit core staff, Hulett saw the OHFF as a way to test the waters for something much bigger.
Sporting an orange shirt and a pleased smile, Hulett sits at his desk in his production offices on a typically scorching Saturday afternoon. The walls are papered with tacked up schedules and jotted notes that look like they belong on a laboratory chalkboard.
"I had looked for about 10 years into doing a big film festival and it seemed incredibly risky to jump off into the mainstream," Hulett said. "So we decided we were going to do a single genre first, the OHFF...review ourselves see how we thought we did. Then look at the prospects of 'do we think that we can handle the big one'".
Based on the success of the OHFF, they clearly think they can.
The core group of Hulett's team wife Ada Hulett, Event Manager and PR pixie Melanie Sweeney and the marketing duo of Evan Wei-Hass and Bonnie Lindsay, took a couple of months to map out the logistics of the truly ambitious Tulsa International Film Festival. New additions, like Michelle Svenson, the Circle Cinema Board Member, Native American Film Festival runner, and (for 9 years) a consultant with the Smithsonian Institute, rounded out the crew. "She brought credibility immediately." Hulett said.
It was no easy task. Hulett worked 80-100 hour weeks while attempting make sure his staff had a life, logging no more than 40 hours and additionally making sure Sweeney had the opportunity to pursue her own film projects.
Sweeney, who at 24 years of age has endeavored to make movies for 20 years (yes, she was four when the bug bit), pulled off the job, even while handling two films she was involved in, necessitating being out of the office for much of the summer.
"It was at a really important time," Hulett said. "But I had blessed her going off because we're the film industry and we have to grow. This was her path and it's important that she do it."
Hulett's love of film is evident. His hope, to grow the local film scene with an international festival is a continuation of sorts. Dfest, the nationally influential but now Dfunct music festival had serious South By Southwest-style potential, which itself started as a music festival. Now it's morphed into an equally top-drawer international film festival -- in turn drawing more industry attention and resources to Austin. Had Dfest not gone under, the thinking goes; kick-starting an international film component to symbiotically grow with it would have made starting a film festival from scratch a less daunting endeavor, while aiding its legitimacy.
"That's one of the things that we looked at [partnering with Dfest] but my background is in film, not music, and I thought 'That's just taking on too much stuff'," Hulett said. "So I thought, 'Stick to what I know: film.'"
International House of Pictures
He's done just that with the Tulsa International Film Festival, a roster of 155 films, both short and feature length will be exhibited over the course of four days at various locations across the downtown area. The Circle Cinema will host screenings; four ballroom theaters at the Hyatt Regency have been retained for exhibition, while TCC's Center for Creativity will run film blocks. The closing events are to take place at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame -- with satellite events taking place at additional locations, Dwelling Spaces, Living Arts and The Soundpony, among others.
The categories for submission included Indigenous Film; Women Behind the Camera; Emerging Filmmaker -- high school and college -- and the Nightmare Division.
"We're mainstream, open genre, any kind of genre, but the horror we are keeping segregated as 'The Nightmare Division'," Hulett said. "We have a pretty big following [due to the OHFF] and we want to be true to those fans. I think we did a lot to build a reputation last year."
The horror block is at the Hyatt Regency. Combined with The Best of OHFF II, the event will surely (and hopefully) keep the hardcore horror fans happy under the larger umbrella of TIFF. The exclusivity of the OHFF to the horror genre and its accoutrement were a part of the sub-culture appeal for its fans, the mainstreaming of which might be considered less exclusive, at best, and a slight at worst.
"I expected that," Hulett said. "I've been working real hard because we're proud of what we do and we love those fans. We don't take them for granted. We had a few films submitted for horror that I moved to mainstream because they are very good that way...but are not quite the adrenaline burst that the horror fan wants."
And while the vendor culture and fan specificity of OHFF will be missing from the Tulsa International Film Festival proper its seminars, filmmaker panels and workshops will remain an integral part of the entire fest. There was a very nuts-and-bolts component to OHFF, to educate local filmmakers in the craft of movie making and bring like-minded artists together. "We're gonna have 14 workshops this year, all film related." Hulett said.
Considering the international nature of many visiting filmmakers, those workshops represent opportunities to tangibly connect with a global community.
"We have submissions from over 50 countries, we have film makers coming from maybe 23 countries and we've promoted Oklahoma a lot." Hulett said. "[So] there's going to be a lot of networking and people are looking to Oklahoma as an opportunity to make films...we're trying to bring those elements together."
The nominated films run the gamut, and Hulett expressed genuine surprise at the wealth of foreign submissions and great documentaries.
"We have a grading system that's based on a hundred points scale. Ten different areas, ten points apiece," Hulett said. "And the average score is ninety -- of the films getting in. In [school] terms ninety is an A. We had some 90s and 91s that we turned down because we didn't have room for them."
The opening film, a documentary, Bringing King to China "is the story of a young American teacher in Beijing, whose failed protests against the Iraq war inspire her to produce a play in Chinese (Passages of Martin Luther King) about Martin Luther King, Jr. Her journey begins after she learns (mistakenly) that her father, an ABC journalist covering the war, has been killed by a suicide bomber".
Another film Marathon Boy, the award winning tale of a vulgar Indian child of the slums who becomes a marathon runner, from lauded director Gemma Atwal, is another film Hulett (and its BBC/HBO producers) believe has Oscar potential. "This was the kind of quality I wasn't expecting to see," Hulett said. "Just one after the other."
Beyond that, the breadth of the schedule is daunting to describe. After the Thursday TCC opening, consisting of Bringing King to China and a block of free, outdoor films -- with the after party at Arnie's -- Friday sees an epic program of Q&As and seminars amongst a huge roster of short and feature-length cinema. Events include seminars on Indigenous Youth Media and Native Film Initiatives, luncheons and concerts while the film blocks range from Foreign Language shorts, Women Behind the Camera and screenings of international and domestic horror films (after party at Crystal Pistol).
Saturday follows suit with a slew of morning workshops on post-production, screenwriting, the state rebate system and a host of other critical issues for up and coming filmmakers. They continue throughout the day along with the movies, with themed blocks of short films such as When Life Throws You A Curve, Battle of the Sexes and The Domination (or Extinction?) of Mankind is Coming -- after party at Empire (if Mankind survives).
Sunday rounds out the events with a VIP & Filmmaker Brunch, Best of Blocks, the premiere of Tracy Trost's latest film, The Lamp and the closing Awards Ceremony at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Post-awards celebrations take place at Fassler Hall.
Film Has Legs.
Hulett's amazement at the quality across all of the genres and formats featured at this year's fest is a result of his crack marketing team, led by Wei-Hass and Lindsay, who aggressively sought out quality and variety, contacting the film offices of every state, every province in Canada and the Ministries of culture of many countries. With a four to one ratio of shorts to features, the lineup offers a plethora of pleasurable possibilities.
While the impending festival bodes well for Tulsa and its filmmaking community the core issue of industry presence, and the jobs it can provide, remains the same.
"Getting the talent base here to where they can make a constant living, where they're doing the same thing every day [will take a decade]," Hulett said. "Back in 2000, when Oklahoma passed its first rebate program, I had production companies from both coasts contacting me. They were extremely interested and excited about it. Oklahoma passed it, but they didn't fund it."
Unfunded mandates are legion in this state, with opposing political factions doing their best to defund the programs enacted by the other. Ideology can play into that sort of budget vendetta and Oklahoma's conservative wing, like its national body, generally tends to view taxpayer money spent on arts and creative human resources with a wary eye.
"That's exactly how I see it; the political see-saw." Hulett said. "Small rural counties have a representative throwing rocks at Oklahoma City. [It] keeps their name in the paper. It's just an old-fashioned political battle." In essence, Oklahoma's favorite sport -- football.
Regardless of the aggressiveness of Oklahoma's initial and forward thinking film rebate program those "other" states made more funds available by...well, providing funds.
"In 2004, the first year they paid something out, I was U.S. Legal Counsel on a film where they spent $8 million in the state. It got the whole years' worth [of funding]," Hulett said. "The way I look at it is not Oklahoma 'catching up' to New Mexico and Louisiana so much as that we promoted something and didn't do it right and let those states go way beyond us and what we could have been."
At that level it's not about whose team wins; since all Oklahoma filmmakers are on the same one. It's the reason why the forward thinking of some politicians dies on the vine in an ironic cancellation of conservative business values and progressive cultural advocacy. Perhaps, if the Tulsa International Film Festival embeds a cornerstone for itself on a national level, the state's political "leaders" might come around to the idea that investing in Oklahoma's raw talent isn't just good for the arts but is also good for the treasury.
Or, as Hulett put it, "Nobody attacked the NCCA playoffs as being bad for the state."
The Tulsa International Film Festival takes place Sept. 22-25 at multiple locations across the downtown area. For a complete program schedule, locations and ticket information visit tulsaiff.festivalgenius.com/2011/schedule/week.
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