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Encouraging a film renaissance in OKC

Sean Carr / Red Dirt Report
View of Film Row in Downtown OKC.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — Music is a-boomin’ in Oklahoma. Live performances are now a regularity even if you slide to a bar on a weekday.

If you enjoy local rap, there’s almost always an event to catch local rappers every day. Fan of jazz and blues? Multiple locations to catch all that swing downtown. Rock music? You get the idea.

Within the past two years in central Oklahoma, The Criterion opened, the historic Tower Theater re-opened and larger bars in the metro and Norman area- Bison Witches and Brew in Norman and Saints in the Plaza District to name a few- are starting to book musical acts for weekday performances.

Music is the top choice for an entertainment experience in Oklahoma and sometimes feels like the only entertainment option. There’s a community sensibility to the music scene in Oklahoma where relationships are bonded over a mutual connectivity of art; a connection between artist and audience that can’t be mimicked in an arena.

Other than the acts that get booked at the 16,000+ seating Chesapeake Energy Arena and, to a lesser extent, the Diamond Ballroom all of these smaller stages and quasi-venues in bars showcase independent or local artists. That requires a culture that wants to support local acts and experience artists before they make it big. 

There’s a demand for these acts to be booked. These groups aren’t necessarily homogenous with the people that fill the seats at the Chesapeake Energy Arena during a concert. They are part of an indie community.

Attempting to describe the culture of “indie” is to paint with a very broad stroke, but saying indie means to skirt the normality of mainstream is an apt observation. Indie film, indie music, indie stores; it becomes a defined state of mind. Film culture is synonymous with indie culture as indie films demand a desire to search beyond the surface of a narrative.

Music and film are essentially intertwined within the red dirt that Oklahoma planted its stake into in 1907. Music has been strong here for 110 years and only seems to get bigger as the city’s revenue grows.

So why does film not seem to get a piece of the pie?

Why can’t I go see a retrospective screening of a classic film on a Tuesday night with an established community that understands why it’s a film worth remembering?

Before indie film culture was even marketable or noticeable past the flashing lights of Hollywood, Oklahoma City was, surprisingly, a major hub for film from the state’s inception in 1907 up until the 1980s.

Downtown Oklahoma City formerly housed the offices of Paramount Pictures (their screening room is still available as The Paramount Cinema on Film Row but they rarely screen films), Warner Bros., MGM, etc., on what is now labeled as Film Row in downtown OKC. That’s major groundwork laid to completely bypass a century later.

The need for studios to set up shop in numerous states in the early 1900s revolved around the business of film exchange, a concept that died out with movie studios’ monopoly on theaters by the 1950s and the advent of safer, polyester film. Film was first manufactured on a highly flammable nitrate base, which meant it had to be transported in fireproof train cars. This nitrate-based film could catch fire in hot storage closets or projection booths easily so film exchanges were set up state-to-state to help combat fatal accidents.

“It isn’t that movies went away, it’s that technology and the how in their distribution and viewing changed,” Bradley Wynn, the historian for Film Row tells Red Dirt Report.

Film fluctuates and adapts with the times, but Oklahoma’s film culture never seemed to recover after the 1950's damning dip in business. Theaters were no longer owned by movie studios and entrepreneurs were quickly bought them up.

But by the late 1970s, drive-in theaters resorted to playing pornography to pay the bills as “filmmaking wasn’t the real business here,” Wynn said. The legendary Tower Theatre dipped into pornography screenings in the late ‘80s as well before closing until 2016. It reopened this year as a music venue and is expected to resume screening films as well.

You might suggest that film is expanding as Oklahoma is already getting two new Warren theaters in Midwest City and in OKC within the next few years. This is somewhat true, but if you take the same films and spread them out across a district, that doesn’t expand upon anything in film culture. It just gives the same audience more opportunities to see the same films in different sections of the city.

This does nothing, but continue to diminish film culture and any prospects to get more to join in and help expand it.

A dwindling film culture isn’t one that attracts new locals to join in and attempt to claw through to get noticed. No one going to AMC at Quail Springs Mall is expecting to engage in conversations after a film with a community besides the friends they brought with them.

There’s no official place to nerd out about film with like-minded people.

There are, however, small communities that screen films regularly and have small communities like the film clubs at OU or the OKC Film Society located in the Plaza District.

OKC Film Society was my first exposure to local film culture and has been the jumping off point for everything else since. I’ve gone through multiple transitions in my writing from hip-hop articles to self-help to now entertainment pieces with a large emphasis on film.

Visiting OKCFS screenings gave me the determination to use my writing to get film noticed in Oklahoma while I still live here. It’s more satisfying to push to get film noticed in OKC than to throw my hat into an already established film jungle like New York or Austin.

I’ve spent 2017 traveling across the country to cover film festivals, like the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, to the local festivals like deadCenter Film Festival here in Oklahoma City.

OKC Film Society showed me there was a spot in Oklahoma that needed to be filled by a film journalist like me and other like-minded thinkers. The three curators at OKC Film Society, Eric King, Patrick Crain and Alex Palmer, are infinitely smarter and more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be and lead me to article ideas and most importantly, engaging conversations about film that are void of a central location to dissect film. It brought me into a community I didn’t know existed and now I can’t imagine myself without mentioning my involvement in the community.

This sounds like a bunch of ineffective crying and rambling (and it is).

So what’s the plan? How can film lovers make an impact?

Speak up.

The film community doesn’t make their voice loud enough. Show out to the few events that Oklahoma gets for film — and not just once in a blue moon. Going to local film festivals like deadCenter Film Festival, Norman Film Festival or Bare Bones Film Festival, is just as important as going to a Wes Anderson marathon at the OKC Museum of Art, if not more so.

“Support great cinema, go to really good films, whether that’s at our theater, the Circle Cinema in Tulsa, or even the multiplex. Read people who are writing about important work, and let their editors know that you appreciate serious film criticism — not just reviews of the latest instantly disposable and forgettable piece of garbage. Let people know what you’re excited about on social media, and begin writing about films yourself. Advocate for the films and type of film you really care about.” — Director of Curatorial Affairs at the OKC Museum of Art, Michael J. Anderson, Ph.D., on how Oklahoma can expand its slowly growing film basis.

We are on a good path right now and Chuck Foxen, Circle Cinema’s film programmer, believes OKC and Tulsa are both in the transition of a major film renaissance. “We’ve considered opening a theatre in OKC. Think that may be something that happens in the future,” Foxen told Red Dirt Report.

When Foxen told me this in July, I didn’t think of it as any more than a polite throwaway line. That was until it was announced in September that Circle Cinema is opening a dual-screen indie movie theater named Rodeo Cinema in Oklahoma City before the end of the year. He couldn’t yet reveal that he and the Circle Cinema team were about to throw OKC film culture on their back and sprint to the end zone.

Co-founder of Circle Cinema and Rodeo Cinema, Clark Wiens, told the Tulsa World that they wish to bring “community consciousness” to OKC akin to their involvement in the indie film scene in Tulsa.

Wynn recently told me that Alamo Drafthouse, a popular Austin, Texas-based chain of movies theaters, had talked of bringing a theater to OKC in 2009 that never materialized. This was just after the Thunder showed up and before OKC showed a real presence. Before the restoration of Film Row was completed and before the state liquor laws changed this month to allow alcoholic drinks to be served in movie theaters.

Alamo Drafthouses typically have a full bar in their lobby and patrons can get drinks delivered to their table, which brings a more sophisticated atmosphere around film. If you make Oklahomans start to sell them a night at the movies that can be as nice as a night on the town and you bring thousands of new film nerds into your city.

But we are leagues behind to have anything like this possible if we don’t make our voices heard.  

It all lives and dies by the community itself. Circle Cinema could bless us with four theaters in all major cities surrounding OKC and they could be shut-down in a few years time if we didn’t do everything to keep them in the conversation. It’s on the community to keep everything afloat. The Rodeo Cinema is a blessing that no one expected OKC would get. Here’s the small taste of film that we have strived for and deserve.

If you feel like film is being neglected in Oklahoma, your job doesn’t end after seeing a movie in a near-empty theater. Let everyone know when you love a new film. Annoy your friends with the praise. Bring new people to local film events.

Let’s not waste this.

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About the Author

Kevin Tudor

Born and raised in the mean streets of Yukon, Oklahoma, Kevin is currently majoring in...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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