Ben Hall’s recent cinematic adventures have ranged from embodying a suspected vampire in a remote cabin near Tahlequah for a film festival favorite to playing a folksy water witcher in a field somewhere in the vicinity of Tulsa in a Golden Globe-winning Oscar contender.
And that’s just in front of the camera. Hall was standing atop a ladder on a February afternoon as he helped construct sets for the forthcoming football biopic “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story,” which is finishing up filming in the Oklahoma City area.
A staple of central Oklahoma’s theater community, Hall said even spending most of the past year away from the stage due to the COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed down his work as an actor and set builder because of the uptick in film and television productions in Oklahoma.
“It’s fun. I enjoy doing it. I’m at an age where I’m not out there hustling to build a career, but I like living here in Oklahoma City. I like being around my daughter and my new grandbaby. And I have roots here,” Hall said in a phone interview. “And it’s possible now with a little hustle that actually this can be someone’s living here now.”
That’s one of the primary goals of continuing to grow Oklahoma’s film and television industry into a leading U.S. production hub, said Oklahoma Film + Music Office Director Tava Maloy Sofsky.
“Oklahoma’s commitment to the entertainment industries paired with the state’s low cost of living and doing business is a win-win opportunity for both film and music professionals and our state,” Sofsky said in an email to The Oklahoman. “Not only are filmmakers and music makers poised with creativity, innovation and opportunity to tell their stories in Oklahoma, but our statewide industry members, businesses and communities are being positively impacted by new revenue streams for a more sustainable quality of life.”
By the numbers
The Oklahoma Film + Music Office reports that it recruited 34 film and TV projects that used the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program in the 2020 fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.
Those productions employed 3,960 Oklahomans and contributed a direct fiscal impact of more than $32.8 million to the state’s economy, according to the new report.
For the 2021 fiscal year, which runs July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, the film commission estimates that the 33 film and TV productions using the state’s incentive program will create 10,218 local jobs with a direct fiscal impact of $161.7 million.
That doesn’t include the more than 150 productions that lensed in Oklahoma that didn’t use the state incentive program, including music videos, student films and commercial projects.
“Not only are we open for business, but we’re a ‘yes’ state. We’re going to help people find solutions and work safely and help them bring their dreams true … (while) providing sustainable income for themselves or families,” Sofsky said.
Open for business
Oklahoma’s film industry continues to show promising growth even amid the lingering coronavirus pandemic, which has halted or slowed production in other parts of the country. Last year, Gov. Kevin Stitt designated the motion picture and recording industries essential businesses, allowing them to continue working during the pandemic to meet the entertainment industry’s growing demand for streaming content.
“This is a business. It’s called show business — and I know a lot of people get caught up in the ‘show’ side of it. But it is business. It’s exactly the same as oil and gas,” said Richard Janes, who is a partner and co-founder in the new Green Pastures Studio and recently opened Oklahoma Film & Television Academy, in a virtual panel for the Sundance Film Festival, which picked Tulsa’s Circle Cinema as a satellite site.
“Oklahoma could do with more revenue, especially during the pandemic. And when you look at what’s going on within the entertainment industry, more people are spending time watching movies at home, and the streaming services are spending much, much more money making content. So, there are billions of dollars that need to be deployed.”
Last June, producer-director Danny Roth completed production on his first Oklahoma film — the feature “Harvest of the Heart” — in the OKC metro. The Michigan moviemaker’s romantic drama, which began lensing May 27, was one of the first — if not the first — live-action productions to start in North America after the pandemic brought TV and filmmaking to a sudden halt last March.
Since, several high-profile productions have worked in the state, including the anticipated FX pilot “Reservation Dogs,” from Oscar-winning writer-director Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), who is Māori, and Tulsa moviemaker Sterlin Harjo (“Barking Water”), who is a member of the Seminole and Creek nations; the fact-based inspirational drama “Unbreakable Boy,” produced by the Erwin Brothers (“I Can Only Imagine”) and starring Zachary Levi (“Shazam”); and the presidential biopic “Reagan,” starring Dennis Quaid (“I Can Only Imagine”), Penelope Ann Miller (“Carlito’s Way) and Oscar winner Jon Voight (“Deliverance”). Although the latter had to temporarily shut down in late October after several people tested positive for the novel coronavirus, producer Mark Joseph said filming resumed in early November.
Oscar winners Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio met last month in Bartlesville with Osage Nation cultural leaders to talk about the making of the big-budget adaptation of the true-crime novel “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Filming on the $200 million movie is expected to start in May in the Tulsa, Bartlesville and Osage County areas.
Best places for moviemakers
Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa were featured recently on MovieMaker Magazine’s coveted list of “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker in 2021.”
Tulsa is ranked at No. 7 on Moviemaker’s list of top 10 small cities and towns, while Oklahoma City is listed at No. 15 among the top 25 big cities for making movies.
“Oklahoma City’s film industry has been growing so rapidly the last few years we can hardly keep track of all the productions in town at any given time,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt in a statement.
Although the pandemic has halted much of his work with local theater companies, the growth in the industry also has made it tough to keep up with Hall’s growing list of credits.
The OKC actor currently appears opposite Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”) in the Golden Globe-winning drama “Minari,” which filmed in Tulsa and is expected to contend for Oscars glory; stars as a man of mystery — possibly of the blood-sucking persuasion — in Oklahoma City moviemaker Mickey Reece’s film fest favorite “Climate of the Hunter,” which lensed near Tahlequah in Welling; and plays a supporting role in Tulsa filmmaker John Swab’s home-grown crime drama “Body Brokers,” which features Academy Award winner Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”), Emmy nominee Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”) and Frank Grillo (“Captain America: Winter Soldier”).
“It’s really cool to be in a local film (like ‘Climate of the Hunter’) that had the opportunity because of the pandemic for so many people involved in these festivals across the country to stream it and see it and then to review it so that it got so much exposure. … And I’m very happy for Mickey Reece,” Hall said. “It’s a different kind of fun and cool to be involved in something that is getting the kind of response that ‘Minari’ has been getting.”
Along with doing a virtual show for Carpenter Square Theatre and remodeling houses, Hall has spent much of the past year continuing to rack up film credits. He spent a day on “Reagan,” reunited with Swab, Leo and Grillo for the upcoming thriller “Ida Red” and had some memorable moments opposite Leslie Uggams (“Deadpool”) in the comedy “Dotty and Soul.”
After reuniting last year with Reece on his horror movie “Agnes,” Hall is currently playing George Jones in the prolific filmmaker’s forthcoming musical fantasy “Country Gold.”
“It’s a lot of fun, especially since it’s a satire. … So, I’m not sure that the George Jones in this movie has anything in common with the real George Jones,” Hall said with a laugh. “But I am The Possum.”