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Help wanted in Oklahoma film industry

By Steve Metzer - Journal Record - November 16, 2020

Oklahoma deserves solid reviews these days for its television and film production industry.

That was the big picture overview shared by four professionals with ties to the industry who met for the most recent installment in the JR Now series of online forums organized by The Journal Record. But, there’s more to the story. A key plot point is that Oklahoma may be nearing a “tipping point” in earning greater rewards on investments in TV, film and music production. An important next step, the forum panelists said, will be to multiply numbers of people trained to take on myriad jobs – from makeup artist to camera operator and even from caterer to carpenter – associated with the industry.

“Filmmaking is the ultimate team sport,” said Trevor Rogers, executive director of the Film Education Institute of Oklahoma. “So much of it is in these technical positions, and they too are artists in their own regard. It’s a very attainable, real career, and they can work in one of the most unique industries in the world right here in Oklahoma.”

Rogers participated in the panel discussion along with Oklahoma Film + Music Office Director Tava Maloy Sofsky, actor and producer Jacob Snovel, and Communities Foundation of Oklahoma Executive Director Teresa Rose Crook.

People interested in training for careers in the industry have multiple options available in Oklahoma. A graduate of Oklahoma City Community College’s Digital Cinema Program, Rogers worked for several years on the production side of filmmaking before turning his focus to workforce development. Aligned with Oklahoma City-based Nathan Gardocki Productions, he helped to organize workshops that trained more than 150 new crew members in the state. He said the relatively new FEIO is a nonprofit entirely dedicated to providing film education, networking opportunities and technical resources to people who aspire to be part of the filmmaking community.

Oklahoma colleges, universities and career techs also are important players in developing new crew members and performers. And, Crook said the CFO is a valuable resource. Its longtime role has been to support numerous communities, businesses, nonprofits and individuals in fulfilling goals. This year, it has been working with the state and with Oklahoma County and Oklahoma City to disburse federal pandemic relief funds to, among other things, help people who have lost jobs to retrain for new careers. Working in partnership with the OFMO and others, the CFO can help to match people with opportunities to train for careers in film or TV production and even pick up costs for those in the metro area.

“We’ve got the jobs. We’ve got the work. We just need to get people prepared for those opportunities in the industry,” Crook said.

Sofsky said Oklahoma has even more going for it. The Cherokee Nation Film Office also is dedicated to building up the industry. Several communities have dedicated special industry liaisons, and there are countless other vendors and other stakeholders interested in seeing the industry succeed. She said the OFMO acts to “connect the dots” to help turn ideas into initiatives and initiatives into completed, profitable ventures.

In addition to workforce development, Sofsky said the state also would benefit from additional business investment in infrastructure, like soundstages and equipment available for production companies to rent. She said companies also are incredibly interested in financial incentives to bring productions to Oklahoma. The state has earned dividends on investments of 35-37% rebates extended to companies based on in-state qualified expenditures, she said. Over the past 10 years, investments of about $15 million have incentivized film and TV productions that have pumped more than $175 million into the state economy. In fiscal year 2019 alone, more than 1,750 Oklahomans took jobs in productions in the state, earning more than $3 million in wages.

“It’s a very well-structured, well-oiled (incentive) program, and we get a lot of compliments even from our friends in Georgia and people who work around the state,” Sofsky said. “I can truly, confidently say that in the past two to three years we’ve really experienced a major mindset change internally and externally.”

Even in COVID-plagued 2020, more than 20 productions have come to Oklahoma, and Sofsky said record numbers are anticipated in 2021.

Snovel, who holds a bachelor’s degree in film and a master’s in education, agreed that jobs on production crews are very attainable in Oklahoma.

“There are enough movies happening now that you can get training and jump into a job,” he said.

Carpenters, electricians, welders, cosmetologists and many others might capitalize on opportunities.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity to pull people in from those industries into film,” Snovel said, “and career-tech is helping to make that bridge happen.”

For others who aspire to careers that might range from production assistant to cinematographer, he said it can be very beneficial to study not just about film production, but also about the business of it, ranging from financing to marketing.

The panelists agreed that the industry has evolved to the point already in Oklahoma that people don’t necessarily have to look outside the state for opportunities. In the future, an attainable goal should be for Oklahomans in the industry to be able to center careers in the state and never have to cast about for jobs in states like California or Georgia.

“Absolutely I think it’s a possibility,” Crook said. “Adding another industry that can elevate the entire state; that to me is an absolute game changer for our state… and it feels like we are just right there, right at the tipping point.”

Added Sofsky: “We are kind of at that tipping point, with so much wind in our sails. … We need those trained actors in front of the cameras, but we also need those skilled workers … who believe that this can really be our state’s next emerging industry.”

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