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Okie film industry looks for next catch



If you want to size up an Oklahoma fisherman, you don't need to look at the size of his rod " just try to catch a glimpse of his hand.


Fingers have been lost, hands scarred and arms marred. But some state anglers can't help but reach inside murky holes at the bottom of Oklahoma rivers and lakes, hoping to catch a bite and land a catfish by hand.

The bizarre, dangerous and strangely entertaining sport of "noodling" " a type of hand-fishing where one reaches into a muddy hole, and yanks out a catfish when it bites " was detailed in "Okie Noodling," an award-winning 2001 documentary that followed the sport and its hilarious subculture, which culminates every July with the Okie Noodling Tournament held annually in Pauls Valley. Only Oklahoma waters could inspire a sport as bizarre, dangerous and strangely entertaining as hand-fishing.

The film was directed by Bradley Beesley, a former Norman resident who currently lives in Austin, Texas. "Okie Noodling" was well-liked by audiences, critics and judges, and took home an award at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin that year.

Beesley has directed several acclaimed documentary films and music videos, and, in recent years, has shot reality television series for cable, including "Paranormal State" and "Rollergirls."

He co-directed the 2006 film "Summercamp!," which followed the lives of a handful of youth at the Swift Nature Camp in Minong, Wis., as they made friends and enemies, and interacted with each other away from the influence of parents. The documentary won critical accolades and screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival and SXSW.  >>>

But most of Beesley's projects " including the 2005 Flaming Lips documentary, "The Fearless Freaks," and his 2006 television documentary, "The Creek Runs Red," which centers around the heavily polluted and environmentally ravaged town of Pitcher " are filmed right here in Oklahoma. "Okie Noodling" was a low-budget, independent PBS project, funded by a small grant from the Independent Television Service.

It only cost $68,000 to make "Okie Noodling" in 2001, Beesley said, and for the anticipated sequel, premiering Saturday night at the deadCENTER Film Festival in downtown Oklahoma City, the filmmaker didn't spend a penny more.

"Okie Noodling II" updates audiences on the lives of some of the characters from the original and tracks the quest of a man fighting the sport's illegality in his home state, Beesley said. Saturday's screening is its second public showing, and will be the first chance Okie audiences and the documentary's subjects will have to see it.

Inexpensive, homegrown films like Beesley's are exactly the type of projects that Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film & Music Office, thinks are key to a thriving state movie industry.

"These lower-budget, independent films are the future of Oklahoma film," Simpson said. "That's our niche."

The film office is part of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, and until recent years, focused largely on attracting Hollywood movies and big-budget studio pictures to the state.

Pitching Oklahoma as a location for movie studios and high-profile filmmakers still plays a major role for office staff, but Simpson said the "groundwork" of state cinema has to come from "talent within."

Despite digital video advances, making movies is still expensive. And much of that production money is spent in the state " a multimillion dollar impact that has more than doubled in three years.

Oklahoma films brought $17.4 million in economic development in 2007, more than twice the $6.2 million in development seen in 2004, records show.

But in New Mexico and Louisiana " "Oklahoma's biggest competitors" when it comes to film, according to Simpson " the economic impact for those states hovers closer to $500 million.

Films like "Twister" in 1996, or "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish" in 1983, are an easier sell to production companies, Simpson said. But the variable Oklahoma landscape, which can mirror a variety of natural terrain and mimic small towns or urban cities, is a primary reason large studios look into shooting here.

Other states have managed to attract big film productions through incentive programs, rebates and tax breaks " some of which Oklahoma adopted and modified through state legislation.

Convincing state lawmakers to set aside money for art rebate programs and creative development is always a tough sell, Simpson said, especially given nationwide economic strains and this year's standstill state budget.

In addition to a point-of-purchase sales-tax exemption given to qualified productions, an incentive bill signed by Gov. Brad Henry last week provides an additional 2 percent rebate for film and music production companies spending $20,000 or more on music, which could be used for films. Senate Bill 1956, formerly House Bill 2583, lowered to $350,000 the expenditure requirement needed for film production facilities to qualify for the rebate, but lawmakers delayed the bill's activation until July 1, 2009, when funding is hoped to be available.

Enacted last year, SB 623 modified the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program of 2001, known as the "Compete with Canada Film Act," and reduced the film budget necessary to qualify from $2 million to $500,000. The bill, which Henry signed into law in June 2007, became active in August and would give a 15 percent maximum rebate on state expenditures to filmmakers spending $300,000 in Oklahoma.

Simpson said she pushed for reducing the budget requirement so more productions, especially lower-budget films, could qualify for the incentives, but since August, no projects have earned the rebate.

For the bill to actually stimulate production of independent films, Simpson said the budget requirement should be lowered much more, to around $50,000.

"At that budget, filmmakers can actually make a professional film worthy of (the state's) support." she said. "Filmmaking has changed. "¦ Audience tastes have changed. Films with those kinds of budgets are going on to win awards and audiences everywhere."

The deadCENTER film festival, currently under way in OKC, is a good example of changing audience attitudes toward independent films. In less than a decade, the festival has gone from a single screen and a few frustrated, dedicated "cine-holics" to a citywide showcase attracting thousands who flock to watch more than 100 unconventional, foreign, independent and homegrown films.

"Rainbow Around the Sun," an independent modern rock opera, produced and filmed in OKC, was a 2008 selection for SXSW and the Florida Film Festival. The movie has received glowing reviews from national audiences and critics.

Simpson said "Rainbow" is exactly the type of film Oklahoma needs to support and keep on its line as inexpensive, talented bait to help hook bigger film fish.

"Rainbow"'s co-director, Kevin Ely, didn't want to divulge the exact budget of his film, but noted that it fell short of the $500,000 threshold for state rebates.

"There's a huge amount of talent in this state, and the community is very self-reliant and tight-knit," Ely said. "Local filmmakers hire their friends to work on the crew and don't usually have the budget to travel elsewhere to work, and they don't need to. You have everything you need to make a film right here. "¦ I know, because I did it."

Both Ely and Beesley agreed that audience tastes have changed in their favor. Beesley said Oklahoma is finally starting to support a growing culture and to see the benefits of promoting independent art and film.

"If you are spinning your wheels "¦ not getting anyone to help, you aren't passionate about what you are doing," he said. "The state can augment your efforts, but ultimately they aren't going to make your film for you." "Joe Wertz

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