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Mr. Lackmeyer says that OKC's formerly glamorous Little Hollywood is "the best bet bet for downtown's next success story."

The race is on to save historic Film Exchange

By Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman

A quick glance at Sheridan and California Avenues west of the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City might suggest the strip isn't the best bet for downtown's next success story.

Film district

The odds seem so high. City planners and developers forgot this stretch as they recast most of downtown this past decade as a 21st century, major-league city. Sidewalks are crumbling, cracks filled with weeds and about half of the old street lights don't turn on at night.

Homeless people and panhandlers nap in entryways of abandoned buildings by day, sometimes walking over to nearby fast-food restaurants to beg for some change.

But a mix of developers, civic leaders and idealistic filmmakers say this last, undeveloped corner of downtown once known as the "Film Exchange" could become yet another destination spot.

Amidst the dreamers, Bradley Wynn and the Oklahoma Film Society appear to be the most ambitious -- and last week signed a lease to bring life back to the district's former Paramount Pictures building.

"We had Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, Columbia Pictures all right here," Wynn said. "The first automobile commercial was shot here. The birth of cable television occurred here. Even the Mafia was involved. There is a lot of great history in the area and it would be a shame to lose it."

Where movies were chosen

During the heyday of downtown movie palaces, theater owners screened movies and bought supplies and equipment in the Film Exchange district, centered at Sheridan and Lee. The last vestige of that era, Oklahoma Theatre Supply, opened in 1930 and operated until 2004 upon the death of its owner, Maxine Peak.

Wynn met Peak shortly before her death, just as he was starting to explore the area's history.

"The area was so dilapidated, so much in danger of being destroyed," Wynn said. "Maxine Peak passed away with a broken heart, in my opinion. This area was her life."

Peak left Wynn with some of the vintage silent projectors, blueprints from long-lost downtown theaters and other antiques he hopes to display in an Oklahoma motion picture museum.

But more than being a tribute to days gone by, Wynn thinks the Film Exchange can once again be a thriving area for the state's filmmakers.

In just the past few weeks, the former Paramount Building has already become an early seedling for that dream. Oklahoma Casting recently became the building's second tenant, and owner Ron Smith reports leases are being negotiated with two other independent film companies.

Wynn said he learned early on that Oklahoma's film community needs a base -- one he thinks could be the Film Exchange.

"There was a cohesiveness problem, communication problem -- one guy who might need lighting, but didn't know this other guy who could provide the lighting," Wynn said.

He also argues Hollywood is filled with Oklahoma natives who might want to return home.

"Today, the running joke in Hollywood is that 50 percent of it is made up of people from Oklahoma or with Oklahoma connections," Wynn said. "Ron Howard was from Duncan, Brad Pitt was from Shawnee. The list goes on and on. My question is, 'Why didn't they stay? Why did they move?'"

If the Film Exchange could offer the infrastructure needed by filmmakers, Wynn argues, maybe the next Ron Howard and Brad Pitt will stick around.

Property owners seem ready to help that dream come true.

Smith, a transplant from the northwest United States, bought the former Paramount Building in 2003. His plans include a restoration that would remove the fake siding and paint -- once the building is leased and he is assured it can be safe from vandalism and break-ins.

"When we came to Oklahoma City, we saw a mini-Seattle," Smith said. "We see that it's going to happen; it's just a question of when and how."

Veteran Oklahoma City businessman and developer Chip Fudge is making the same bet. When the Oklahoma Film Association recently hosted its first brain-storming meeting about the district, attendees included notable developers such as Fudge, whose early efforts included the Paseo and Kamps Grocery, and Richard Tanenbaum, whose downtown projects include the Montgomery and the Park-Havey Apartments.

Fudge said he was drawn to the area by architect David Wanzer, whose office is in Deep Deuce.

"I try to go where I can find undervalued real estate that is cool," Fudge said. "We felt like we could take this and do something -- and it has a very marketable brand, having been the film exchange."

Fudge owns the actual "Film Exchange" building, 700 W Sheridan, and is working with Wanzer and owners of Bricktown's LIT lounge to renovate the property into lofts on the top floor and street level shops, restaurants and galleries.

"I have fun with these," Fudge said. "I have a day job that keeps me busy, but I really enjoy finding real estate that I can put back together."

Challenges remain

The momentum, Wynn said, points to the Film Exchange becoming another vibrant downtown district. But the area also comes with some challenges that won't be easy to overcome.

Unlike the rest of downtown, the Film Exchange area has seen no sidewalk or lighting improvements in at least a quarter-century. More than three dozen people showed up at the recent brain-storming session, and concerns about problems associated with nearby homeless shelters were raised throughout the discussion.

Councilwoman Ann Simank, who has supported similar efforts in the Plaza District on NW 16 and in Capitol Hill, encouraged the filmmakers, developers and property owners to form an organization, and to pursue a Main Street designation that could help pay for their efforts.

She also indicated the city could "streetscape" the area, giving it new sidewalks and lighting, as part of a bond issue that will be presented to voters in the next few years. Simank, however, wasn't bombarded with demands that the nearby homeless shelters be moved elsewhere.

By being the first to move in, Wynn hopes to show others the area is ready for redevelopment. He is quick to remind others that Bricktown and Deep Deuce also once struggled with the homeless issue.

"It's an obstacle just like anything," Wynn said. "Our goal is to embrace the homeless shelters, to better their environment, their living conditions, and to look at things we're doing that might provide them with opportunities."

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Not at all!

And obviously the film industry isn't too shabby. Look at LA's success largely due to that industry.

It would have been great if OKC had kept going as a center for motion pictures. Now, maybe things will kick off. More diversification and arts for downtown. The indy companies will be able to show their films at the Art Museum theatre.

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There is actually a really strong, growing indie film industry in Oklahoma. We have two small film companies (Every Tribe Entertainment, which is owned by Hobby Lobby/Mardel, and Graymark Productions, which is headed up by former mega-producer Gray Fredrickson) and numerous indie production are going on around the state, especially in Oklahoma City. And Oklahoma City has the Dead Center Film Festival, which is actually a really good fest and shows movies as 7 different venues across downtown.

We're definitely off to a good start.

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