Budget & Tax, Good Government
Union activism may undermine Oklahoma film-subsidy program
December 14, 2021
Oklahoma lawmakers voted this year to supersize the state’s film-subsidy program, boosting the program from $8 million in annual subsidies to up to $30 million.
So far, the main thing that has reaped is the first public strike at an Oklahoma film along with calls to repeal Oklahoma’s right-to-work law, which bans forced unionism as a condition of employment.
“What they’re trying to do is say that you can’t come to Oklahoma and make a movie without going through them, that they want their cut of the proceeds,” Steve Deace, a longtime conservative political activist and talk show host, said regarding the union strike. “We’re a small independent film and we’re not worth their time, which is why they chose us. They thought that they would make an example out of us and that we couldn’t fight back. They thought wrong.”
Believe Entertainment previously shot the pro-life film, “Unplanned,” in Oklahoma, and chose to return to Oklahoma City to shoot “Nefarious,” which is based on a book by Deace that he describes as a faith-based horror story about a serial killer who claims demon possession in a last-ditch effort to avoid the death penalty.
Deace said the film is one of the first shot in Oklahoma since lawmakers voted to dramatically increase film subsidies. Much of the film is being shot at Prairie Surf studios in Oklahoma City, although some scenes have also been shot at a state prison near Granite.
“We hired a lot of the same crew that we had on ‘Unplanned’—some non-union, some union,” Deace said. “But, given that Oklahoma’s a right-to-work state, we left that up to them on if union people wanted to come work for us or not.”
Shortly after the project began, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) called a strike. Deace said there was “no strike vote” and “no grievance action” filed prior to the strike.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees did not respond to a request for comment.
On Dec. 6, in a Facebook post, IATSE officials stated that the “crew of Nefarious Film LLC is on strike in Oklahoma City for recognition of their union and a contract! Management is now attempting to replace the striking workers. If you are contacted to work on this production, send us a tip & DO NOT CROSS THE PICKET LINE!”
In an interview with Oklahoma City’s Fox affiliate, Fox 25, camera operator Sam Taylor said the strike was related to demands for healthcare coverage for the short-term jobs and also regarded the length of the working day.
“We would like healthcare benefits during a global pandemic. We would like for our employees to be treated correctly, work not long hours. We want to have respect from the producers,” Taylor told Fox 25.
While the union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, after five days of striking, Deace said no one from the union had made any offer.
“No one contacted us,” Deace said. “No one. The only person we know is that the strike claim was done by a woman in New York. No one has come to us. No one has made any offer. No one has attempted to negotiate. They just went on strike. And I think they thought they were just going to run us over, and the reality is they thought wrong about that.”
The union’s lack of communication is one reason some officials believe the strike is about forcing Oklahoma film projects to be fully unionized as part of an effort to undermine the “right to work” provision of Oklahoma’s constitution that prevents employees from being forced to join a union.
One prominent Democratic lawmaker has explicitly called for repeal of “right to work” in response to the film strike.
On Dec. 8, Assistant Democratic Minority Leader Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, tweeted, “Long term, though, we must end Right to Work (for less) & add provisions to our Film Rebate program that ensure the jobs are living wage.”
He continued, saying lawmakers “must reform this & other credits so that what we were promised—a rebate that creates good jobs—actually does that,” referring to the film-production salaries as “poverty wages.”
Several legislative supporters of the film-subsidy program issued a joint statement declaring their continued support for Oklahoma’s right-to-work law.
“We are proud to be the state where the landmark pro-life movie ‘Unplanned’ was made, and we are proud to welcome those same award-winning faith-based filmmakers back to our state for ‘Nefarious,’” said state Reps. Josh West, R-Grove; Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee; Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow; Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa; and Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan. “We want them to know, as well as other prospective independent filmmakers, that Oklahoma is proudly a right-to-work state and we will defend and uphold that for as long as this program exists.”
Fetgatter was House author of the legislation that supersized Oklahoma’s film-subsidy program.
While Bennett and union officials complain of low wages on movie sets, that reality was well-known when lawmakers voted to increase film subsidies.
In a prior review of the film-subsidy program, the state’s Incentive Evaluation Commission report included data on film-production jobs in Oklahoma, broken down into two basic categories: “above the line” jobs, referring to individuals credited on screen, and “below the line” jobs, referring to crew members and similar positions. Many of those positions are short-term, part-time jobs that produce very little income.
For seven years highlighted in the report, from 2013 to 2019, the average “below the line” payment to Oklahoma residents was no more than $4,213 apiece and as little as $1,733. The average payroll for “above the line” positions ranged from $1,497 apiece in 2015 to $19,575 in 2014, aside from the outlier year of 2017 when the average “above the line” job paid $52,215.
This is not the first instance where film-industry officials have threatened local film productions to influence state politicians.
Some entertainment industry officials previously threatened to withdraw projects from states that pass pro-life legislation. Actress and political activist Alyssa Milano released a report, the “State-by-State Guide to Abortion Rights for the Entertainment Industry,” that urged entertainment companies to avoid states like Oklahoma that require parental notification of abortion for minors.
While this is the first time Oklahoma’s film-subsidy program has been, indirectly, bogged down in union politics, the program has long drawn criticism for its financial flaws.
In 2016, the state’s Incentive Evaluation Commission recommended repealing the film subsidy program because of its negative financial impact and scant economic impact. Lawmakers ignored that recommendation. The commission did not repeat its call to repeal the program when it came up for a second review in 2020, but again noted the program is a money loser.
The commission’s 2020 review of the film-subsidy program showed that it had produced just 145 net new jobs in the motion picture and video production industry in Oklahoma since 2005 and was a net drain on state finances.
“For each $1.00 in rebates provided by the State, the Oklahoma tax revenue generated from filming and production spending within the state is well under $1.00,” the Incentive Evaluation Commission review stated. “For the period 2013-2016 the state tax revenue generated was $.05 for each $1.00 of rebates provided. For the period 2017-2020 the state tax revenue return was $.52 per $1.00 of rebates.”
As recently as 2019, the report found the program generated 13 cents in tax collections for every $1 in state film subsidies provided—or, put another way, the state experienced a net loss of 87 cents per $1.
The state return on investment from its film-subsidy program is lower than what many people achieve by buying scratch-off lottery tickets, based on several experiments.
The experience of other states has fallen along similar lines with film-subsidy programs being a net drain. As a result, many states have opted to repeal their programs. While 44 states had film-subsidy programs in 2009, just 33 did by January 2020.
Because of Oklahoma’s right-to-work law, Deace said the “Nefarious” production was able to replace striking crew members and resume shooting.
“Our crew people, they’re out of jobs now because of what the union did,” Deace said. “They have to go somewhere else to get a paycheck. All the union really accomplished here is they took food off the table of a lot of good people that were going to earn a nice paycheck right before Christmas.”