Hollywood on the Prairie: How Oklahoma Became the Nation’s Newest Movie Hot Spot

It’s time to catch up with latest star of the silver screen: Oklahoma!


Visit Pawhuska to see where Killers of the Flower Moon was filmed.

Courtesy of Apple and Oklahoma Film and Music Office

Summer 2023 saw downtown Oklahoma City swarming with film crews working on the blockbuster sequel to Twister—while a couple hours north, the town of Pawhuska, tribal capital of the Osage Nation, was the main filming location for Killers of the Flower Moon. Spotting Sylvester Stallone around the state as he filmed Tulsa King became an unofficial sport. Of late, it’s enticed A-list talent like Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon. Lee Isaac Chung loved filming his Oscar-winning Minari in Oklahoma so much that he returned to film Twisters, while Emmy-nominated Reservation Dogs—shot mostly in Okmulgee—was a love letter to the home state of Native filmmaker Sterlin Harjo.

And serving as backdrop to the live action were the state’s myriad film festivals and studios, like the massive Prairie Surf Studios in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City, lending cred and clout to a new kind of boomtown. Travelers can join in on the action in myriad ways, but most easily by purchasing festival passes—to both deadCenter, a four-day spree of screenings and parties held in June throughout Oklahoma City, and Twisted Arts, held at Tulsa’s historic Circle Cinema in November.

It’s worth noting that Oklahoma City and Tulsa are extremely easy to travel between—only about an hour and 20 minutes apart, via a direct route on I-44. Or travelers can take the scenic route (literally) by driving Route 66, which is super pretty and lined with curiosities, from the Arcadia Round Barn to Pops Soda Ranch. For Tulsa King fans who missed Stallone, try visiting some local spots from the series, including the acoustic phenomenon called Center of the Universe, Triangle Coffee, or the retro ’70s-chic Dust Bowl Lanes bowling alley from season one, actually in Oklahoma City.

The rising popularity of such places shows that filmmaking in Oklahoma is having a major moment—priming the state as a fresh new frontier for Hollywood. The state was among the first to offer a film incentive back in 2001, starting with a $150,000 rebate before steadily sweetening the deal in subsequent years. By 2005, four films had taken advantage of the perks, while 2021 alone saw that number balloon to 34 films, including not only Killers of the Flower Moon but also Minari, Stillwater, and Twisters, with 669 production days, 11,000 jobs, and $100 million in crew wages, according to the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector. That year, the bipartisan Filmed in Oklahoma Act became one of the strongest film incentives in the country, making productions eligible to receive a cash rebate of up to 37 percent on related labor, goods, and services.

The state is investing in its people, too. The local film industry has created thousands of jobs, while Oklahoma City Community College’s film studies program helps retain local talent—something also evident among Indigenous and marginalized communities, with organizations like Cherokee Film working to ensure representation and Twisted Arts spotlighting LGBTQ inclusivity on screen.

“It’s a great industry for us in Oklahoma to invest in,” says Cherokee Film senior director Jennifer Loren. “It’s a way to diversify our economy, provide jobs that aren’t dependent on oil and gas, and gives us cultural currency.” Founded in 2019 and employing a full-time cultural and historical consultant to ensure accurate representation, the office showcases Oklahoma’s range of both voices and landscapes. “We have the most diverse locations of any state, all these different eco-regions that people don’t realize,” adds Loren. “In Cherokee Nation alone, we have tallgrass prairies, waterfalls, the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and small-town Americana, all within two hours.” To see some of this beauty as a traveler, head to the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, 90 minutes north of Tulsa. At 40,000 acres, it’s the largest protected patch of tallgrass prairie left on Earth—not to mention beautiful and serene, with a vibe that feels distinctly American and opportunities for hiking (mostly flat, easy trails), visiting a historic cabin and cowboy bunkhouse, spotting wild bison, or driving a 15-mile scenic loop.

The beige facade of Prairie Surf Studios with movie posters for Tulsa King and American Underdog.

Prairie Surf Studios in downtown Oklahoma City is lending cred to a new kind of boomtown.

Courtesy of Prairie Surf Studios

Prairie Surf Studios founder and co-CEO Matt Payne was drawn back to his home state after 15 years in Los Angeles by both the state’s film incentive and OCCC’s training program. “There’s also an ease of doing business in Oklahoma,” he says. “The low cost of living is very attractive, and Oklahoma City is a very pretty, neutral city that can double as a lot of different places.” That, plus the eco-diversity of the state and cinematic small towns like Guthrie and El Reno, make the opportunities as endless as they are affordable.

“When I was first in L.A. working in film, I didn’t like to come home,” Payne adds. “And then downtown [Oklahoma City] began to really ramp up, and suddenly it was a cool place to be. I went from never wanting to come home to ‘how do I do what I love in Oklahoma?’”

The splashy blockbusters aren’t the only ones making cinematic waves here. Independent film is a critical facet of the film economy, and like the A-list projects taking off here, it’s finding its rightful seat at the table. “Things are becoming more accessible to independent filmmakers,” explains Dylan Cole Black, director, writer, and actor with horror-centric Oklahoma City production studio Dead End Film House. Citing the increased ease of acquiring gear, resources like the Oklahoma Film Actor’s Studio, and the ability to simply get more eyes on content from a wider audience, Black regards the current film landscape as a far cry from his youth. “Growing up, there wasn’t a whole lot here,” he says. But now, “Each year, something new pops up that makes Oklahoma more of a film hub than I honestly ever expected it could be.”

Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell, and Lee Isaac Chung stand in a field for the filming of Twisters.

On the Oklahoma set of Twisters are, from left, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell, and director Lee Isaac Chung.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pic

How to immerse yourself in Oklahoma’s film scene

The local film scene has become a cottage tourism industry in and of itself. In addition to visiting small towns like Flower Moon’s Pawhuska, or the Twister the Movie Museum in Wakita, there are plenty of ways for visitors to dive in. Payne and Black both praise OKC-based deadCenter Film Festival, the largest of its kind in the state. And Tulsa’s nearly century-old Circle Cinema, complete with a Walk of Fame honoring Oklahomans like Ron Howard and Brad Pitt, throws its own film festival in July, followed by Twisted Arts in the fall. “You go to a festival, and after an hour of locally made short films, go, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much raw talent in Oklahoma,’” says Black.

Other art houses and film museums worth a visit include the Oklahoma City Museum of Art theater; the Outsiders House Museum in Tulsa, used by Francis Ford Coppola in 1982 for his adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s classic; and Rodeo Cinema, a former vaudeville stage that is now an art house nonprofit theater in Stockyards City. Loren even recommends getting involved with the filming process itself. “We always have something filming in Oklahoma, and they’re always looking for background actors. If you can get yourself on set as an extra, it’s worth your energy, even if you’re just visiting.” Freihofer Casting, based in Norman, is the premiere casting office for the state, with ongoing open calls and opportunities. The Oklahoma Film & Music Office also lists crew and casting calls, including for extras.

Sunny exterior view of the Mayo Hotel

The Mayo Hotel, in Tulsa, is an art deco icon.

Photo by Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Where to stay in Oklahoma

The booming film industry has helped Oklahoma reach a record-breaking $11.8 billion in its latest tourism economy report. And as more tourists discover the underrated state, hotels arise to meet the demand. In Oklahoma City, the Fordson Hotel is a boutique aptly located on Film Row, a historic stretch of the Arts District that earned its name from the major film companies—like Paramount and MGM—that once filmed here. In Tulsa, movie fans can stay at the Mayo Hotel, an art deco icon and sponsor of Circle Cinema Film Festival, while Pawhuska’s Frontier Hotel is a 20-room old-school property built in 1912 that’s well-designed, super clean, and modernized in all the right ways.

The continued explosion of the film industry keeps providing new incentives for cinephile tourists to explore Hollywood on the Prairie. And the future is looking bright: After the massive success of Killers of the Flower Moon, Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell says he hopes to raise the filmmaking rebate from $30 million to $80 million, hoping to further encourage film in Oklahoma and attract even bigger productions.

“Years ago, people thought of the film industry as a far-off Hollywood dream that didn’t apply to them here in Oklahoma,” says Loren. “But I think with some of the higher-profile projects that have been filmed here, people are starting to understand that the film industry is decentralizing out of Hollywood, and there’s one to be grown here. Oklahoma consistently surprises people when they visit, and now we consistently surprise people on movie screens and TV screens.”

This story is part of our Meet Me in the Middle series, which celebrates the singular towns, cities, and outdoor spaces that lie in wait for travelers between America’s well-trodden coasts. Read more from Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and the Midwest.

A transplant to Oklahoma City after two and a half years of RV living, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with bylines in Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, InsideHook, Condé Nast Traveler, and others.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR