How to Run an Independent Production Company (Without Selling Out)

It’s hardly a secret that the film and TV production business can be tough. It’s also no secret that it has been especially tough of late. I won’t get into the weeds on this, but there’s a line in Ben Bailey’s piece on California based company, Think Out Loud that sums it up pretty well. “Corporate budgets are shrinking and clients are more risk-averse than ever before.”

Then there’s the residual effect of the strikes, inflation, a slump in support for independent movies…you know the rest.

The further you travel from LA or NY, the harder it can be for small creative production companies to make a living. Life in the literal center of America—Tulsa, Oklahoma in my case—presents challenges that NY- or LA-based companies don’t have to think about.

With pressures like these, you’re more likely than ever to face a choice between profitability and principles. So how do you balance what you need to do against what you want to do? And where do you draw the line?

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some experience with crossing lines. And I believe that it’s not only possible to operate within your principles, but also that you can be successful by doing so.

My back story

I grew up in a world where you made something of yourself by joining the military, by going to college, or by doing manual labor for some awful company. There were no “creative fields.” You had work and then you had hobbies.

Picture Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, but in a small town where attending youth church or working tables at a pizza restaurant were how you found your people. In my case, it was a group of film buffs/music nerds/skaters that included Charles Elmore (remember this name). We’d listen to bootlegged Nirvana CDs, sling pizza dough, and talk about the movies and shows that mattered to us.

Believe the Hype

One of these was a great documentary called Hype, which literally changed my life. I probably watched it 500 times, and had a thousand conversations about it with friends like Charles. It’s about the Seattle music scene, but the major themes circle around selling out, and the importance of not compromising yourself, your vision, and your integrity for money.

As you can imagine, these values struck a chord with non-conformist kids like us. We’d already chosen to not be a part of the status quo. We knew who we were. We were lifers. We didn’t exactly know how, yet, but we were going to do cool creative shit and never sell out.

Idle hands

Fast forward ten or so years, and things hadn’t really worked out the way I’d hoped. After graduating High School in the year 2000 I’d gone down a rather dark road. While pursuing a career in music, I supported myself with a job at a machine shop where I suffered a violent and traumatic injury.

In the years that followed, I was propped up by big-pharma’s new miracle drug, Oxycontin. And we all know how that story goes. I found a whole new set of “friends” and ended up a guest of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections after nine years of hard living with an opiate addiction.

With a clear mind and my shackles removed—metaphorically and literally—I was gifted with a clean slate.

It wasn’t just being in prison that got me clean. It was a sincere desire to get out of the hole I was in, and away from the people I was around. With a clear mind and my shackles removed—metaphorically and literally—I was gifted with a clean slate.

Man on fire

I’ve always been ambitious, but at that moment I was on fire and full of newfound energy. Using the tools I learned in recovery programs, I set out to find certain types of people, especially those in Oklahoma doing cool things in the creative industry. I really paid attention to anyone trying to build something in film and music—and who were actually doing the cool creative shit I’d intended to do before I got sidetracked.

People like Jeremy Charles, a well-respected photographer. He was taking the coolest photographs of artists and musicians, and had such a defined style to his work. We worked together on a few random projects here and there, but it wasn’t until a few years later that we officially teamed up.

I also reconnected with my high school skater-friend and misfit, Charles Elmore. He was working on some great documentaries, shorts, and features with Jeremy. I was really interested in what they were doing, but I knew I wasn’t quite ready for full time work in this field.

A fork in the road

Instead, I went back to college to study journalism and took advantage of the fairly new classes offered on Digital Media, photography, and After Effects. I learned by doing, and looked for online tutorials that covered gaps in my understanding.

I took on side hustles making music videos and a lot of random one-man projects. My first actual paying production job was for a doctor who specializes in addiction and recovery.

All of this gave me hope that I could find and do work like this. And do it without leaving the state. I had also met someone and reconnected with my family after getting clean. I’d built a new life.

Ready now

After going as far as I thought a journalism degree might take me, I went to exactly one interview. I bombed. They knew it, and I knew it. I just wasn’t the right fit. On the walk back to my car, I texted Jeremy and Charles to see if they had any suggestions about what I should do next.

And that’s how I ended up at Pursuit Films (formerly known as FireThief Productions).

I started as an editor and DIT, moved to post-production supe, and these days I’m lead editor. And, yes, now I get to do cool creative shit.

Pursuit Films showreel.

To me, post production is a powerful artform that engages with everyone. It entertains, it inspires, it educates, informs, and it also influences. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Nor does Pursuit Films.

Core principles

Pursuit Films is a Native-owned film and TV production company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We value sustainability, inclusion, and support of the underdog, and we seek clients who feel the same.

At Pursuit Films, we produce episodic TV shows, short- and feature-length films, and specialize in creative documentary filmmaking. We’ve worked with brands like Nike, celebs like Jack White and Dylan Baker, and have earned countless awards—including over 20 Regional Emmys.

We’re always developing and meeting and pitching. Searching for awesome, authentic stories that we can be proud to tell.

Stories like the award-winning short film, Totsu (Redbird)—pronounced “toju”—which touches on the the MMIW movement, and more recently, Reverence, a feature by upcoming writer-director, Kyle Harris.

Stand your ground

It’s important, valuable work. And that’s the point. We’re not trying to be everything to everyone. We know who we are. We won’t take work we don’t believe in. Or work with people we don’t believe in. Our scale might be smaller than our LA and NY equivalents, but our client list is purposeful and curated.

We decided some time ago we were not going to support fossil fuel companies, political campaigns, or casinos, and we pick our commercial work based on the impact it’ll have on our world. For example, we teamed up with the agency Saxum for the Own Your Power campaign aimed at curbing teen vaping.

But we don’t always get it right.

A lesson learned

We developed a Native-driven, true crime series with a friend of ours and we were really excited about it. A network picked it up—normally a reason to celebrate—but we didn’t understand why this particular network even wanted it, given the subject matter.

Over time, we watched them grind the original Native themes down to fit their idealogical angle.

Over time, we watched them grind the original Native themes down to fit their idealogical angle. To us, it felt like they’d taken a tragic incident and dumbed it down. We put in the overtime and finished the project, but learned to trust our instincts in the future.

Back to our roots

These instincts led us back to our roots in documentary filmmaking. We were founded on episodic documentary filmmaking with Osiyo TV | Voices of the Cherokee People, which features exceptional Cherokee people and the things they do to keep their culture alive.

Osiyo TV features voices from the Cherokee People.

At the end of its seventh season, this spun out into a brand new venture, Cherokee Film. We just worked together on a long-form doc about the conservation efforts to save the endangered red wolf. You can watch the short version below.

Another active and ongoing production that we cherish is For Our People; an original docuseries produced for Tribal Self Governance. I really can’t stress enough how fulfilling it is to help tell stories that serve something bigger than yourself, to give voice to people whose very existence is an expression of resistance to systemic racism and colonization. But it also means not shying away from challenging topics. Like grief.

Navigating grief

After working with Sesame Workshop to create WaStaTse and Reignen Yellowfish, we teamed up again to make a 50+ video interactive website about grief. Understanding it, navigating it, and more. It was a big lift, with a lot of collaboration and a large number of ongoing video assets.

There was some discovery in what it was we were creating but once we understood the concept we knew organization would be key. The producers gave us a basic outline of the interactive, which would consist of four sections—winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Sesame Workshop’s Season of Grief project is organized into seasons.

Each section would contain multiple interview videos interviews with grief specialists and counselors, and families who were willing to share their own experiences. 

Getting organized

We shot the interviews at Pursuit Films’ studios, created quick transcripts using Premiere’s text-based editing, and sent these to the producers who then made their selects. These formed the basis of our radio edits.

To keep everyone on the same page, we used a consistent naming convention in both our Premiere projects as well as our folders. Our videos weren’t complicated, but they did go through several revisions—a process made much easier by’s integration with Premiere. I also graded each entire interview with ColourLab AI and exported the grade as a LUT so that every editor had access to the same grade.

Once all of the video’s content, mixes and color grades were approved we exported textless ProRes files and put them on top of the timelines for future exporting needs and archiving.

Simply staying organized and communicating with each other was why this was successful. We created a system and pipeline that everyone was linked to. If they moved something to a different section we made sure that change was reflected in every folder and project. It was a lot of work for one person but not so much for a well oiled post-production machine. And I think the work speaks for itself.

It’s the kind of work that truly helps people. In fact, it helped me while we were making it. I lost both my grandmothers in the last two years and found myself referring back to the grief project even before it was finished. That’s like the ultimate emotional backstage pass.

Blazing your own trail

So how do you find your own path through this industry without losing a piece of yourself in the process? Well, like I said at the top of this article, I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do have some suggestions:

Cultural fit
Before you present yourself to clients, it’s important to know who you are and what you want to achieve. Don’t “fake it till you make it.” Find clients who are aligned with your principles and don’t be afraid to be selective.

Local support
If the work you want to do will contribute to the local community, look for local organizations that might be able to help you achieve this goal, like the Oklahoma Motion Picture Alliance and Oklahoma Film and Music Office.

Branch out
Remote work is more practical than it has ever been. Footage is local, but tools like and C2C have made it possible for post production to happen anywhere.

Find your voice
Don’t be afraid to cultivate a tone of voice or style that works for you. It can be a point of difference between you and your competitors. Just be 100 percent authentic about it. 

Satisfaction and fulfillment aren’t found in the awards on your shelf or the IMDB credits you earned.

Our clients don’t choose Pursuit Films simply because we’re Native-owned. We’ve spent years building our reputation and we’ll spend even more exceeding it. Yes, creating a hit show or an indie festival darling may earn you attention and funding while you’re in the spotlight, but it can be exhausting chasing the next wave.

It may sound corny, but there really is no greater reward than service to others. Personally, I think that satisfaction and fulfillment aren’t found in the awards on your shelf or the IMDB credits you earned, but in the cool authentic stories we get to tell every day.

Ty Clark

Ty Clark is a musician, writer, director, and editor based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has worked in professional studio productions for over 15 years, picking up multiple Emmys, and is the lead editor at Pursuit Films. You can find out more about him at his website, where you can also watch his award-winning short film, Editor