By TEDDYE SNELL
In the past decade, Cherokee County has been the site of tw o feature-length films, and thanks to the passage of a recent House bill, the area remains fiscally attractive to both big-budget filmmakers and independents.
Last week, House members reversed an earlier decision to sunset a film tax-rebate program by voting in favor of HB 2580. A similar bill has been passed in the Senate, and extends the Compete with Canada Film Act through July 1, 2024.
The Act provides a film tax rebate to productions that select Oklahoma for filming. The program cost is $5 million per year, but Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, pointed out that production companies spend vast sums of money before even being allowed to claim the rebate.
“This is one tax credit that is different from those provided to oil and gas companies,” said Brown. “The oil and gas is here in the ground in Oklahoma, and companies have to come here to get it. Film companies do not have to choose to come here. Once they are here, they spend large sums of money in our restaurants, hotels, gas stations and other businesses before they can ever exercise the rebate, and that’s whether the film is a success or not. They’re spending money in our local communities. I believe it shines a positive light on Oklahoma, and allows us to compete with larger places.”
Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Kate Kelly agrees.
“The incentive program from the Oklahoma Film and Music Office can bring in millions of dollars to the state that would not otherwise be spent here,” said Kelly. “The important thing to note is that to be eligible for the rebate, conditions must be met.”
According to Kelly, to qualify for the rebate, production companies must spend money with Oklahoma companies, entities and people.
“Qualifying expenditures are eligible to receive up to a 37 percent rebate,” said Kelly. “That could include construction costs, facility rentals, equipment purchases or rentals, salaries for Oklahomans who might appear as actors or extras, general operation costs and more – as long as the money is spend with Oklahoma companies and people.”
Tahlequah and Cherokee County most recently hosted the production company for the 2013 film, “Cherokee Word for Water,” which told the story of Wilma Mankiller and Charley Soap’s water line installation project. Kelly said most people in Tahlequah didn’t realize just how much goes into filming, and how many people are required to get the job done.
“The company, of course, had its own people who traveled to Oklahoma, who rented houses, apartments and office space, bought food, gas and supplies, but many Oklahomans were employed during the shoot,” said Kelly. “In addition to directly benefiting from day-to-day purchases, the sales tax revenue generated at restaurants, stores, gas stations and the like is a completely different animal and is not included in the qualifying rebates. That money stays right here in our communities.”
Kelly said she is grateful the measure passed. Originally, some legislators in the House wanted to let it expire, because they believe the Oscar-nominated film “August: Osage County,” portrayed people who live here in a negative way. The movie was filmed in Bartlesville and Pawhuska, and featured Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ben Affleck, Juliette Lewis, and Ewan McGregor.
“The incentive is an important economic engine for our state,” said Kelly. “It’s not the content of the movies that matters when contemplating a bill that would extinguish an existing program that can bring much-needed dollars into our state. The state legislators were a bit out of their areas of expertise in critiquing and reviewing films and basing their votes on their feelings on cherry-picked movies.”
Chamber Director David Moore believes tax cuts should be judged on an individual basis.
“But I believe this one is for everyone,” said Moore. “It benefits those coming from out of state and draws attention to our area. Anytime we can put our area on the big screen – well, it’s good for the image of our state and it’s good for tourism.”