As 'Killers of the Flower Moon' starts filming, rural Oklahoma gets boost from movie biz
The historically charming streets of Guthrie could have become a veritable ghost town in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled beloved events like the Territorial Christmas festivities, Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival and 89er Days Celebration. Overnight visitors stopped booking rooms. The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple couldn't host tours, concerts or other events.
Then, "Reagan" came to town, and with the biopic of the 40th president came action.
"Tourism is our bread and butter ... and the pandemic was hampering our overnight tourism so much," said Justin Fortney, Guthrie's director of tourism and community development. "But having 'Reagan' posted up for such a long time was a lifesaver. Between 'Reagan' and some of the Lazy E (Arena) events that they had there last year in 2020, those things were a lifeline to the economy here."
"The film industry was able to inject not just money but some energy in this community."
Now, the movie action is moving northeast and excitement is building in Bartlesville, Pawhuska and Osage County for Martin Scorsese's long-awaited adaptation of "Killers of the Flower Moon," with filming scheduled to begin this week.
With its reported $200 million budget and starry cast featuringLeonardo DiCaprio,Robert De Niro andJesse Plemons, Scorsese's eagerly awaited fact-based Western is believed to be the biggest movie production ever undertaken in Oklahoma — and with the industry still trying to come back from the pandemic, it may be the biggest movie made in the USA this year.
"This is a really unique situation in ... a film of this size and magnitude in the state of Oklahoma," said Visit Bartlesville Executive Director Maria Gus.
"I've been at this job, this is my 13th year, and my first scout for a film was in, I think, 2009 for 'To the Wonder.' And they have created a growing and sustaining industry. It's just amazing to me what has happened in the last decade with film in Oklahoma."
As the state's burgeoning film and television industry generates millions of dollars and thousands of jobs, it's not just the major metropolitan areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa that are benefiting. Smaller cities and towns are experiencing economic and cultural boons from show business, too.
Early estimates for "Killers of the Flower Moon" — the production also has been using the name "Gray Horse" — indicate an economic impact of $24 million, including $10 million in projected visitor spending, more than $367,000 in sales tax generated and about $150,000 in lodging tax, according to Gus.
Plus, the Bartlesville Development Authority is leasing Apple Studios a large space in the former Siemens building as a production headquarters.
"We're an oil town, plus tourism, sports and recreation, all of those pieces contribute to our visitor dollars. We definitely, along with the rest of the country, had a very slow year last year. And now we're getting people that are ... calling and saying, 'Why can't I book a room?'" Gus said.
When "Reagan" arrived in Guthrie last fall, Fortney said local hotels, beleaguered by the pandemic, experienced immediate benefits from the production, starring two-time Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid as former President Ronald Reagan, Golden Globe nominee Penelope Ann Miller as first lady Nancy Reagan and Oscar winner Jon Voight as a fictional KGB agent.
"For our bed and breakfasts and some of our I-35 chain hotels, they were full for quite a long time, just from cast and crew from the 'Reagan' film, especially during a time when tourism everywhere was just dead, especially overnight tourism," Fortney said.
"For us in Guthrie, the film industry is our convention industry for the most part. ... If 'Reagan' posts up here for three months, to us, that's our convention industry for three months because they're coming into town, filling up the hotels, using all these spaces and restaurants."
Directed bySean McNamara ("Soul Surfer"), the production, which is using the Oklahoma Film Rebate Program, created 1,966 local jobs and generated $16.6 million in direct spending last autumn, according to the Oklahoma Film + Music Office.
"You have all the different expenses that come with even a small film, but a film the size of 'Reagan,' they spend a good chunk of money, even just, say, supplies like going to the grocery store or the hardware store," Fortney said. "Just different odds and ends for a film that big, it adds up locally. With the pandemic stuff, the cast and crew probably didn't eat out or go to the bars ... as much as they normally would have. But they were still out and about."
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There doesn't have to be a global pandemic wreaking havoc for Oklahoma's rural areas to benefit from a cinematic boost. In Enid, where energy and agriculture are the top two industries, the movie business helped soften the effects of a downturn in oil and gas when actor Paul Dano ("There Will Be Blood") filmed his acclaimed directorial debut "Wildlife," starring Oscar nomineesCarey Mulligan andJake Gyllenhaal, in fall 2016.
Not only did the film, which debuted at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2018, create nearly 300 local jobs with more than $2 million spent, it also led to repeat business for Enid, where the period drama "To the Stars" lensed in 2018 ahead of a 2019 Sundance debut.
"I think that opened everybody's eyes to to what we have and how appealing it is," said Visit Enid Director Marcy Jarrett.
Although Enid hasn't booked another moviemaking project since, Jarrett said she remains enthusiastic about the economic potential. The city is working to be certified through the Oklahoma Film + Music Office's Oklahoma Film Friendly Community Program, which helps communities develop the necessary protocols and permits to attract and support film and TV production in their area.
"We just have to be the right place for the right film, but the more that Oklahoma gets its name out there, the more filmmakers will look at our state — eventually, we will once again be the right place for the right film. ... I think it's tremendous," said Jarrett, who was cast as an extra for "Reagan."
"It doesn't take as much to move the needle in smaller communities, so we're very grateful for the smaller projects. ... The projects like ('Killers of the Flower Moon') are rare, because that one is just massive. But it's still going to be felt throughout the whole state. It's going to again put this state on the map for something good."
Although production was delayed a year due to the pandemic, interest is arguably as intense as ever as filming begins on Scorsese's adaptation of David Grann's 2017 New York Times best-seller and National Book Award finalist “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI."
"I think it's so great that they're going to be filming here, that they've had auditions for the Osage and for other Native American actors to be a part of it," Grann told The Oklahoman in a 2020 interview.
"The Osage, I always say they know their history intimately. They know this part of their history; they know what happened. But there were far too many of us who didn't."
“Killers of the Flower Moon” chronicles the murders of Osage Nation citizens in 1920s Oklahoma, after the oil boom made them rich. The brutal killings became known as the "Reign of Terror" and the center of a major investigation by the then-fledgling FBI.
"I think what's really important in this particular project is that we do everything that we can to be supportive and help the Osage people have this story told the way they want and make this project successful," Gus said.
"I think that the Scorsese team has been so diligent in the way that they have spoken and approached the nation. They appear to be working in earnest to tell that story in a way that aligns with the Osage people."
The Visit Bartlesville director pointed out that filming on "Killers of the Flower Moon" is beginning as lensing is underway in Okmulgee and Tulsa on additional episodes of "Reservation Dogs," the anticipated FX series from Oscar-winning New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, who is of Maori ancestry, and Tulsa moviemaker Sterlin Harjo, who is a member of the Seminole and Creek nations.
Gus recently acted as an extra on the coming-of-age comedy about four Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma who spend their days committing crime — and fighting it.
"Simultaneously, we have two indigenous perspectives being amplified here in Oklahoma, which is where it should be," she said.
Prior to "Killers of the Flower Moon," Gus previously worked with three-time Oscar-nominated auteur Terrence Malick, who grew up in Bartlesville, on his poetic drama "To the Wonder," starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem, and on Primetime Emmy-nominated helmer John Wells' star-studded adaptation of Tulsa nativeTracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winner "August: Osage County," featuring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch.
"I think it also helps Oklahomans see their state in a different way," she said. "When 'August: Osage County' was being made, Ewan McGregor would go to Osage Hills State Park and practice his bagpipes — and what a beautiful setting to do that. ... One of the benefits of film in your state is to sort of have that opportunity to look at it through that artistic lens and 'Oh, it really is that gorgeous.'"
Or, a community might realize the versatility of a treasured landmark: Guthrie's historic Scottish Rite Masonic Temple stood in for a wide array of locations — from the Oval Office at the White House to the fabledCocoanut Grove supper club in Hollywood — during "Reagan" filming.
"With so many of our big festivals and big activities throughout the year that didn't happen last year ... Guthrie folks got to be excited about seeing Dennis Quaid or Jon Voight going into the local restaurant or something," Fortney said. "I think that was a good psychological boost to the community."