Cherokee Nation launches broad expansion into film industry

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

Film has become an important part of the Cherokee Nation’s business and identity as the tribe continues to build upon the film office they launched in 2019, the first certified Native American film office in the country.

Now, after years of supporting award-winning productions and $1 million rebates, they are rolling out a reorganization of the tribe’s filmmaking ecosystem and expanding the Cherokee Film Studios in Owasso, Oklahoma.


Now named simply Cherokee Film, the enterprise includes four branches – Cherokee Film Productions, Cherokee Film Studios, the Cherokee Film Commission, and the Cherokee Film Institute — with 30 full-time employees.

Cherokee Film will continue to offer the enticing rebates for productions filmed in Oklahoma with the services of the tribal film office, but it will also increase production of its own original programming, help tribal citizens break into the industry and create jobs in and around the Cherokee Nation.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Wednesday, Aug. 30, for a new 10,000-square-foot studio, which will join a larger, extended reality or XR, facility that opened in July 2022.

“Cherokee Nation has quickly become a leading hub for Indigenous storytellers in television and film,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said at the groundbreaking.

“As we increase infrastructure, explore incentives, connect resources and remove barriers, Cherokee Nation and its businesses are helping grow and amplify television and film production in Oklahoma while making it possible for our citizens to be a part of it.”

Cherokee Nation Businesses announced the expansion in late August with the new company name and divisions, as well as logos, new social media accounts and a website to represent the tribe’s continued efforts.

Breaking new ground

The existing 27,000-square-foot studio — known as Cherokee Film Studios, Owasso Campus — was the first of its kind in Oklahoma and in Indian Country, though the Tesuque Pueblo tribe now operates Camel Rock Studios, a movie studio in an existing building that once housed a casino in New Mexico.

Owasso Campus sits on more than four acres in the Cherokee Nation Reservation and includes dedicated studio spaces with edit suites, a control room, a professional-grade audio booth, crew and client lounges, and hair and make-up facilities to meet the growing needs of production in Oklahoma.

Related story:
Tribes open film studios to lure movie, TV productions

The new 10,000-square-foot soundstage will feature a 35-foot ceiling, full soundproofing to cinema standards, a modular truss system with chain hoists, a hair and make-up room, a multipurpose-flex space, 14-foot bay doors for load-ins and RV hookups for production trailers. It is expected to be completed in 2024.

“Cherokee Nation and its businesses continue to stand at the forefront of industry and economic growth in Oklahoma,” Chuck Garrett, the chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses said at the groundbreaking.

“We are very proud of our ongoing leadership role in helping grow and evolve the film and television industry, and it’s time that our brand recognizes the entirety of those efforts,” Garrett said.

Cherokee drummer Makayla Bearpaw, right, is featured in Season 8 of the Cherokee Nation’s award-winning programming, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People.” The tribe announced in 2023 that it is expanding its film and television business to include additional original projects. Bearpaw is shown here with Cherokee Film production specialist Colby Luper. (Photo courtesy Cherokee Nation)

The four branches of Cherokee Film will expand the tribe’s already extensive efforts.

The Cherokee Film Commission will continue to offer its $1 million annual rebate to film production in the state and will serve as the liaison to Indian Country, connecting productions with diverse locations spanning five eco-regions, skilled Native talent and crew, and the virtual production soundstage.

The Cherokee Film Institute will train, develop and elevate Native and local talent to work professionally in the film and media industries, creating sustainable career opportunities within the Cherokee Nation and beyond.

Under the new Cherokee Film Productions, the tribe will continue the popular award-winning television production OsiyoTV and will add new projects that tell Cherokee stories and contribute to the tribe’s language revitalization efforts.

The National Academy of Television, Arts & Sciences recently recognized the show, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People,” with six Heartland Regional Emmy Awards.

The tribe’s cultural television series, and the short documentaries included within it, continue to be honored with numerous regional, national and international accolades for its approach to sharing real-life stories of the Cherokee people.

The show, which is often referred to as OsiyoTV, ranks among the most-awarded Indigenous-run series in the industry. The 2023 Heartland Regional Emmy Awards bring the show’s total Emmy wins to 22.

Since premiering in 2015, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People” has featured hundreds of Cherokees from both past and present. The first-of-its-kind series, hosted and executive produced by Cherokee Nation filmmaker and Emmy-winning journalist Jennifer Loren, is breaking barriers and helping change how Native Americans are represented.

And Cherokee Film Studios, meanwhile, will continue to support the local, regional and Native film industries through investments in infrastructure that expand on the tribe’s existing soundstage facility in Owasso.

Looking ahead

Hollywood is already gaining interest in Oklahoma.

Among the projects that have filmed in Oklahoma are the “Reservation Dogs” series; the film “Stillwater,” featuring Matt Damon; HBO Max’s “Land of Gold”; and Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the upcoming Apple+ film about the murder of members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s.

Scorsese’s western shot a few days on Cherokee land and worked with its film office on casting, an experience tribal leaders are hoping to build on.

The first film to receive the $1 million rebate was “Fancy Dance,” the Erica Tremblay film shot on the Cherokee Nation, which made its world premiere in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and was a finalist in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

This still shot is taken from the film, “Fancy Dance,” by director/producer and co-writer Erica Tremblay, Seneca–Cayuga, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film to officially receive a $1 million rebate under the Cherokee Nation Film Incentive program. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“We knew it was going to be a success,” Jennifer Loren, senior director of Cherokee Film, told the Tulsa World after returning from the festival. “We had a pretty good feeling. That film, everything about it supports the mission of the Cherokee Film Office. It was a great fit.”

Starring actress Lily Gladstone, who is also in “Killers of the Flower Moon” with Leonardo DiCaprio, “Fancy Dance’ was a high-profile first for the Cherokee Nation Film Incentive program though other incentive projects have since been completed.

“(‘Fancy Dance’) is the first to get a check, to get the cash rebate,” Loren said. “There were several projects that were kind of the first wave, but they were the first ones to turn in the ledgers and everything to get their rebate.”

Other projects are on the way, but likely have been stalled by ongoing strikes by both the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America.

The movie “Twisters,” a sequel to the 1996 film “Twister,” was in the midst of filming in Oklahoma when the industry was shut down by the strikes. The Universal film, with a monster $200 million budget, stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell and Anthony Ramos, and had an expected release date in the summer of 2024.

Loren said four projects pre-approved for the incentive are in line to be filmed in 2023, though the strikes will cause delays.

Among those is a standout Indigenous story by Andrew Troy, a historical feature, “I Am A Man: The True Story of Ponca Chief Standing Bear.”

To qualify for the incentive, a film or TV show working with the Cherokee Film Office doesn’t have to be Native-themed. Cherokee Nation officials say they will consider the projects by merit rather than on a first-come, first-served basis, and special consideration will be given to projects that help dispel stereotypes about Indigenous people.

“The launch of Cherokee Film represents a new way forward, not just for the Cherokee people, but for all of Indian Country and for film and media as a whole,” Loren said in a statement. “With a community-driven mindset, we have built a living, breathing ecosystem to create positive change through the practice of storytelling in the digital age.”

She continued, “With Cherokee Film’s new investments in film and media production and investments in educating our workforce, we hope to create lasting change that will help diversify the stories we see in mainstream media. Our team at Cherokee Film is passionate about creating a better and more inclusive life for the next seven generations.”

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Like a ghost cloaked in NDAs, Beetlejuice 2 quietly begins production in East Corinth

The exterior of the masonic lodge in East Corinth served as Miss Shannon’s School for Girls in Beetlejuice. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Say “Beetlejuice” three times, and you summon the man himself. 

But in East Corinth, where production on the movie Beetlejuice 2 has begun, locals are hesitant to say the word, bound to secrecy by non-disclosure agreements.

“It all kind of happens quietly,” Rick Cawley, chair of the Corinth selectboard, said of the film. “I’ve only heard about it on a need-to-know basis.”

In the late ’80s, a film crew descended on East Corinth to shoot the original Beetlejuice. The resulting cult classic depicted Barbara and Allen Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), who die in a car crash and are left to inhabit their home as ghosts. The Deetz family — including Lydia, a goth teen played by Winona Ryder — buys the home, and the Maitlands attempt to haunt them out of the property. Along the way, the ghostly husband and wife solicit the not-so-helpful help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), ultimately finding peace with their erstwhile enemies the Deetzes.

Exterior shots in the movie were filmed in the rural Orange County town of about 1,500 residents. A now-shuttered general store, a white Masonic lodge, and a prop covered bridge all featured in the Tim Burton gothic comedy. 

The sequel will feature original cast members Ryder, Keaton and Catherine O’Hara, as well as new additions Justin Theroux, Jenna Ortega and Willem Defoe. Burton will again direct. Primarily filmed in England, the production will shoot in Corinth later this summer, according to Cawley.

On foot, this reporter trekked through the hills of Corinth, hunting for details about the new movie. But locals, roped into the production themselves, stayed mum. (A publicist for Warner Brothers declined to comment.) 

After a few knocks on the locked door of the East Corinth Congregational Church, a space the production has been using for storage, the Rev. KellyAnn Donahue poked her head out. She said she couldn’t talk about the film.

Some residents quietly pointed to the community-supported ski hill Northeast Slopes, suggesting a volunteer there may have some involvement in the new production. The barn-red covered bridge, built for the first Beetlejuice, even found a home at the ski area, where it houses part of hill’s T-bar. But the volunteer, muzzled by a legal “pinky swear,” politely declined to talk. 

No amount of shoe-leather reporting in 90-degree weather seemed enough to overcome the Hollywood gag order. Atop a green hillside on the way into town, the production team this week toiled away under the boiling sun, erecting what appeared to be a house — the house, in fact, of Beetlejuice fame. But “no trespassing” signs blocked the way up the hill, past the crew’s shiny cars with Massachusetts plates. 

Remnants of the original Beetlejuice reveal themselves in East Corinth, even if answers to a reporter’s inquiries do not. A still from the film — a car bursting through the side of a covered bridge — is tacked to a stop sign on Chicken Farm Road. A poster outside Corinth’s white Masonic lodge, transformed in the movie to Miss Shannon’s School for Girls, shows another frame. 

Beetlejuice tourists descend on Corinth from as far away as California to see the sights, according to Jennifer Spanier, library director at the town’s Blake Memorial Library. Superfans find their way into the library, looking for more lore. 

“I’ll be like, ‘I bet they’re a Beetlejuice person,’ because maybe they’re dressed a little goth, or they just look like they aren’t from here,” Spanier said. 

She, too, has been sworn to secrecy due to peripheral involvement in the sequel. 

“It’s called ‘Operation Blue Hawaii’ or something like that,” Spanier said of the production’s covert dealings. “It’s a code name.”

Finally, after all that marching up and down East Corinth’s humble main street, the story seemed destined to break open: a truck, idling outside the library, with a director’s clapboard stenciled to the door. The crew!

This intrepid gumshoe sidled up to the driver’s side window, gesturing inquisitively at the man eating french fries inside. He lowered the window. 

Sixteen years in the business, and the man had encountered few places as … quiet … as East Corinth. 

“This is like no man’s land,” he said. He’d parked beside the library to get some Wi-Fi — cell signal being finicky at best. “There’s nothing to do around here. At all.”

The man, from Massachusetts, declined to provide his name, explaining that he’d signed an NDA, and his union contract prevented him from talking to the press. But under the cloak of anonymity, he spoke with candor — not about the film, but about the sleepy hamlet it had brought him to.

“Unfortunately, it’s Corinth. That’s how you say it, right?” he said, emphasizing the second syllable. “There’s only one store in town.” 

Asked how he imagines the town will handle the hubbub when shooting finally begins, he chuckled. 

“It’ll be a circus.”

No longer operational, an East Corinth store, which featured in Beetlejuice, as seen on June 1, 2023. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Rick Cawley, chair of the Corinth selectboard, recalled the first Beetlejuice back in the 80s.

“Everybody was interested to say the least,” he remembered of the East Corinth shoot. The production crew erected a faux house and manufactured a barn-red covered bridge. 

Early in the original film, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis fall through the bridge, dying and becoming the film’s central ghosts in the process. 

Strange as it may sound for a famous Tim Burton production to appear in the roughly 1,500 person Orange County town, Cawley said Beetlejuice wasn’t a total surprise. The frequently photographed East Corinth village epitomizes quaint Vermont town with its white-steepled church and Holsteins on the hillside. Plus, The Survivors, a 1983 comedy featuring Robin Williams and Walter Matthau, filmed in Corinth a few years prior, Cawley said. That production even enlisted the help of his husky-mix, though the dog didn’t feature in the final film.  

When Beetlejuice came to town, it was “just a little blip,” Cawley said, though the film struck a chord with a certain population in town. “A generation younger than me were kind of enthralled because it was this quirky, cool movie.”

More recently, Cawley got a call from a location scout for Warner Brothers, inquiring about shooting the sequel. The production has since gotten Corinth’s road crew, fire chief and constable involved in pre-production, assisting with traffic control and prop building. 

“We like getting on the map,” he said. “It’s kind of cool.”

In small towns, periods of time are marked ‘before’ and ‘after’ big events. In Corinth, one of those events was the filming of Beetlejuice, Amy Peberdy, a town resident, said. 

“Now all we have is, ‘Remember the Covid years,’ ” she joked. 

Peberdy moved to town the year after production on Beetlejuice wrapped. Locals had stories of famous actors walking into their kitchens to change into their costumes, she said. “It was that kind of production.”

Over the years, Beetlejuice-specific tours have come through town, Peberdy said, and posters around town labeled the various sights from the movie.

“People would go up to the signs and ‘Ahh,’ ” she recalled, “like they were some kind of religious relic.”

Recently, Peberdy has spotted action on the hilltop where the Beetlejuice house stood: big equipment, earth moving. She expects a forthcoming call for extras, though shooting has not begun. 

Now residing at Northeast Slopes, the red covered bridge was built as a prop for Beetlejuice. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

In the Tim Burton-directed film, Barbara and Allen Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), die in a car accident, and are left to inhabit their home as ghosts. The Deetz family — including Lydia, a goth teen played by Winona Ryder — buys the home, and the Maitlands attempt to haunt them out of the property. Along the way, they solicit the not-so-helpful help of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), ultimately finding peace with their erstwhile enemies the Deetzes.

Shot in characteristic Burton style, the movie is spooky-but-whimsical, often featuring gothic special effects that appear consciously low-budget. 

Read the story on VTDigger here: Like a ghost cloaked in NDAs, Beetlejuice 2 quietly begins production in East Corinth.

Writers strike hits home for Indigenous TV shows, films

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

It’s going to be a long hot summer for the striking writers of television and films.

A nationwide strike by the Writers Guild of America over working conditions and pay is already raising questions about how long Native-centric productions such as “Reservation Dogs,” “Dark Winds” and “Rez Ball” can continue if the strike goes on for months.


Diné writer Sierra Ornelas is among those who have been on the picket line. She was co-creator of the series, “Rutherford Falls,” and oversaw a writers’ room that included four other Indigenous writers – Tazbah Chavez, Tai Leclaire, Jana Schmieding and Bobby Wilson.

Having five Indigenous writers for a series is believed to have been a first for a major television production, and her deal with Universal Television was renewed in August 2021.

“We really want to ensure the future of this job, the future of this business for the writers coming up,” Ornelas told ICT by phone from Los Angeles about the decision to go on strike.

“Television is a writer’s medium. I think that over the last few years our power has been taken from us. And I’ve been writing for television for 10 years, and I’ve seen over time the budgets have gotten smaller for writers. The ability for a writer to be on set or to stay on through the entire production is less.”

Sierra Teller Ornelas, shown here in 2021,  is a television writer and was writer/producer of “Rutherford Falls,” a popular series on the Peacock streaming service. She joined other members of the Writers Guild of America in going on strike May 2, 2023, for better working conditions and pay. (Photo by Reginald Cunningham via AP)

With the exception of late-night shows, which went off the air immediately, viewers may not notice anything amiss for a while, since networks and streaming services have plenty of banked content.

Production has already wrapped up for the upcoming new seasons of “Reservation Dogs” and “Dark Winds,” with “Reservation Dogs” set to open Season 3 starting Aug. 2 on Hulu and “Dark Winds” returning to AMC and AMCPlus in July.

“Rez Ball,” a new film about basketball backed by LeBron James, is set to be filmed this summer in New Mexico.

Reality shows, news programs and some of the scripted series made by overseas companies are unaffected by the strike, and most of the movies scheduled for release this year are past the writing stage.

Ornelas, however, said the strike could last months and the delays will pile up, but she believes the writers are making fair demands.

“Being a writer in television right now has changed drastically over the last five years,” Ornelas said. “Ironically, that’s been the years where more Native writers than ever have been staffed for television. It’s pretty ironic; they started letting brown and Black people make television right when they decided to stop paying us.”

‘Until something changes’

The Writers Guild of America, which represents 11,500 screenwriters, went out on strike May 2, with writers for studios, streaming services and networks walking picket lines coast-to-coast.

It looks to be several months before a new deal is made with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, and is likely to affect the Emmy Awards, scheduled for Sept. 18, and possibly delay the fall TV season.

The WGA has vowed to stay on with the strike for as long as it takes.

“The first week has shown, I think, just how committed and fervent writers’ feelings are about all of this,” Chris Keyser, a chair of the WGA negotiating committee, said in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re going to stay out until something changes, because they can’t afford not to.”

The writers want more money and more job security, especially regarding residual payments they get from streaming services, which have expanded to markets overseas. Prior to streaming, writers, directors, actors, and other creatives received residual payments whenever a show was licensed for syndication, for an international deal or for DVD sales.

Now that the streaming era is changing rapidly and DVD sales have slowed, the big streaming companies are reluctant to license their hit series, allowing them to keep subscribers and cut off those who benefited from the outside distribution.

The WGA has put forth proposals for mandatory staffing and employment guarantees. In what is called a miniroom, studios hire a group of writers to develop a series and write a few sample scripts in a few months. But by not officially ordering the series, the studios pay writers less than if they were in a traditional contract for a series.

With just a two- or three-month job, writers are then immediately looking for the next job if the show doesn’t get picked up. If a show does get optioned, fewer writers are hired since the outline and several scripts have already been written.

Writers also want companies to agree to guarantee that artificial intelligence will not take away from writers’ credits and compensation.

The strike has even caught the attention of President Joe Biden. During a White House screening for the film, “American Born Chinese,” which features Native Hawaiians, Biden called for the major studios to come up with a “fair deal” for striking writers during the event honoring Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“Nights like these are a reminder of the power of stories, and the importance of treating storytellers with dignity, respect and the value they deserve,” Biden told CNN. “We need the writers, and all the workers, and everyone involved, to tell the stories of our nation and the stories of all of us.”

‘We’re not messing around’

Ornelas said she learned on the job, and wants to preserve that right for up-and-coming writers.

“I went to every production meeting, I was on set every day of my episode, and sometimes for other people’s episodes,” she said. “Coming from a weaver family, [Ornelas’ mother is award-winning Grey Hills Navajo weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas] you learn from your elders. You learn from the people who came before you how to do the job, so that you can one day teach younger people how to do the job.”

She continued, “What’s been happening is due to budget cuts, writers have not been allowed to learn on set how to do production, how to become showrunners, which is the job that I have. And so when and if they get their own shows, they’re going to be woefully unprepared for the job.”

The two sides are very far apart now, and Ornelas sees a long haul ahead.

“I hope that they come back to the table soon, make a deal with us,” she said. “I think that what we’re asking for is very fair. You see some of these CEOs of these companies making $250 million a year, which is half of the total amount that we’re asking for 12,000 writers.”

She said writers are a key component of a successful production.

“When you think about it, it all really starts with the writer,” she said. “The construction worker can’t build a set, the costume designer can’t pick the clothes. The actors can’t be cast until we fill up a blank page, until we write the scripts.”

She continued, “We’re dealing with big, streaming corporations and they’ve never had a great history of being kind to labor. But I do see a lot of solidarity, which has been amazing. We have the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Teamsters behind us, as they are all experiencing the same problems.”

Pressure is building for the studios to negotiate, Ornelas said.

“Right now we’re trying to shut down productions and slow them down to get them back to the table,” she said. “I’ve been on the picket line and the mood is really enthusiastic. I think everyone that is there, they understand why we’re there. The union is more unified than it’s ever been. The strike authorization vote was almost 98 percent, the highest it’s ever been, the highest turnout.

“Everyone is really hungry to get a good deal and to really express to these studios that we are in business and that we’re not messing around.”

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.