Budget & Tax, Family & Community

Oklahoma tourism impact from films could be negative

April 28, 2021

Ray Carter

Among the more prominent films shot in Oklahoma is the 2016 release, “Let Me Make You a Martyr.”

The film centers on Drew Glass, who returns to his hometown for the first time in years and reunites with his love interest and adopted sister, June Glass, while crossing paths with his adoptive father, local crime boss Larry Glass. Drew and June decided to kill Larry and escape, even as Larry hires a hit man to kill them.

Corey Asraf, who directed the film, credits Oklahoma’s subsidies with making the film possible.

“The OK Film subsidy program was crucial in securing financing for LMMYAM, the team at the OK Film Office were supportive throughout the entire process,” Asraf wrote in an email. “Can’t wait to come back!”

To encourage the production of more films like “Let Me Make You a Martyr,” members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives recently voted to increase state film subsidies from $8 million per year to $20 million—and lawmakers in both chambers are debating whether to hike the program to as much as $50 million per year.

Although independent analysis has shown the film-subsidy program loses money for the state, some of its boosters argue that the films shot in Oklahoma will augment Oklahoma’s national image.

Research indicates such claims may be exaggerated, at best.

A 2006 study by Sue Beeton of Hokkaido University in Japan noted that certain “notions become accepted as ‘truths’ by the general public, regardless of their accuracy, particularly if they are repeated with sufficient regularity by so-called ‘respected’ sources, such as those in the popular media,” and that film-induced tourism is among those notions.

Beeton noted that tourism to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming did increase 74 percent the year after the site was featured in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and said such data “contribute to the notion that movies are strong, positive destination marketing tools.” But her report added that “such results are not immediately replicable at all filming sites.”

While the “Lord of the Rings” movies were touted as a major tourism benefit for the New Zealand locales where they were shot, Beeton noted that research conducted by Tourism New Zealand in 2003, at the height of public awareness of the movies, found the “Lord of the Rings” movies “motivated only 9% of current international visitors” to visit New Zealand.

In some instances, movies shot in Oklahoma may do little to improve the state’s image because the movie is not set in Oklahoma and viewers are largely ignorant of where production was filmed. Such was the case for the Oscar-nominated movie, “Minari,” which was shot in Oklahoma but set in Arkansas.

In other instances, the content of movies may even have a negative impact on tourism.

“A Distorted Destination Image? The Case of Turkey,” a 2002 article published in the “Journal of Travel Research,” noted that movies can do long-term harm to tourism in an area.

“Factors mostly beyond the control of any particular destination play an important role in shaping the organic images of potential travelers about destinations,” the article stated. “For example, an ordinary movie (i.e., Midnight Express) may create an almost permanent negative image of Turkey in the minds of potential travelers that lasts many years. Although, no scientific study has been conducted to measure the impact of the movie, its impact continues to echo in Turkey’s tourism circles.”

At times, reviewers have noted that Oklahoma is the setting for some films shot in the state, but the association is not touted as a plus.

For example, the Film Inquiry website’s review of “Let Me Make You a Martyr” went on at length about the movie’s Oklahoma location.

“Shot in the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, near Green Country, the film emerges itself in the heart of a shockingly corrupt vision of the ‘Bible Belt’ of America,” the Film Inquiry review stated. “With an economy that has struggled to shed its oil dependency since the industry experienced a sharp downturn some 40 years ago, Tulsa, and Oklahoma as a whole, is now run by the tech, alternative energy, finance, and aviation sectors. Big business has run out the working class, increasing crime and drug addiction.”

The review described Oklahoma as “a third world country within a country.”

The 2013 film “August: Osage County” was filled with a roster of major movie stars but also centered on a severely dysfunctional family plagued by everything from drug addiction to incest. In its review of the movie, the website Plugged In wrote, “Before the credits roll, almost everybody who can leaves Osage County as fast as they can. And I can’t say that I blame them.”

In 2020, “August: Osage County” was highlighted on a list of “16 Creepy Incest Movies We Can’t Help But Be Fascinated By.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” a $200 million-budget production now being shot in Oklahoma and directed by Martin Scorsese, is the most high-profile movie to come to the state. But it is also based on the true story of the 1920s murders of Osage citizens for oil money. David Grann, author of the book that the movie is based on, described the story to PBS as “one of the worst racial injustices and criminal conspiracies in American history.”

In 2016, consultants hired by Oklahoma Incentive Evaluation Commission urged lawmakers to eliminate Oklahoma’s film subsidies. That report mostly focused on the poor financial return generated by the film subsidies, but also addressed claims that the program is a net-plus for Oklahoma’s national image.

The evaluation noted that “the consensus among academic researchers and independent state auditors is that films that lead to notable film tourism are the exception. The effect on tourism, if any, depends on a host of idiosyncratic factors such as the popularity of the film, whether the filming location is shown in an attractive way, and the accessibility of the filming location.”

As a result, the evaluation concluded that film productions were of little value to state-branding efforts.

“The effect on Oklahoma’s image nationwide is unclear,” the consultant report stated, “but likely limited.”