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Dallas races to win 'Dallas'

After four years in development, it looks as if the much-anticipated big-screen version of Dallas could finally be ready to roll, as early as this summer. 

The only catch: It might just end up rolling in Florida, or Louisiana, or, egad, Canada. 

The makers of Dallas say that as much as they would prefer to shoot entirely on location in "Big D," they are considering shooting elsewhere. Their reason: Texas just can't compete with other places when it comes to offering financial incentives to lure Hollywood productions to the state. 

More than a blow to the city's ego, losing Dallas could also mean losing the multimillion-dollar windfall that a big-budget film would bring to the local economy. 

"The studio (20th Century Fox) has been asking us to consider a number of states," says Michael Costigan, who is producing the film along with David Jacobs, the original show's creator. "Honestly, Dallas was never high on the list, because it didn't seem like a feasible, economic place to do the movie." 

The film, which was first announced in fall 2002, already has a number of significant elements in place: The screenplay is written by veteran playwright Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias) and Sacha Gervasi (The Terminal); Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) is attached to direct. And though casting is still being worked out, John Travolta (as J.R.) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Pam) have been rumoured to be in negotiations. 

The movie is expected to be in the spirit of such recent, slightly tongue-in-cheek TV-to-movie transfers like Charlie's Angels and The Dukes of Hazzard. It could easily turn out to be the most commercially successful Texas-set film in decades. 

And - assuming it were filmed here - it could provide the city of Dallas with a boost of civic pride the likes of which it hasn't seen since, well, we all found out who shot J.R. in the fall of 1980. 

Both Costigan and Dallas Film Commissioner Janis Burkland emphasize that they are doing everything they can to bring the production to Texas. Burkland estimates the film could ultimately pump as much as $30 million into the local Dallas economy, benefiting Texas technicians and craftspeople who would be hired to work on the project. (Pre-production and principal photography are expected to take six months.) 

But both sides are stymied by the current limbo status of Texas Senate Bill 1142, legislation that would make Texas a more financially desirable location for Hollywood productions. The legislation - which could offer as much as a $750,000 rebate to productions - was passed in May 2005 but was never funded in the state budget. 

The soonest the bill could be funded is January, when the Texas legislature meets for its next regular session (unless a special session is called, which all parties agree is highly unlikely.) In the interim, Texas risks losing any number of major productions. 

"Right now, Texas doesn't have an incentive to give filmmakers," explains Bob Hudgins, director of the Texas Film Commission." (The Dallas movie) is a great example of what we're losing and what we're leaving on the table. And Dallas is just one picture. I hate to tell you how many films we're not getting that we'd like to get here, things that are going to be shooting in Massachusetts and Georgia, both of which just passed amazing incentives." 

How do production incentives work? Usually, they take the form of rebates the state offers to productions for hiring local laborers. Senate Bill 1142, for instance, would provide a 20 percent rebate on all wages paid to Texas-based workers, up to $750,000. In more competitive states, such as Florida, the rebate is offered on the entire cost of the production. Florida also has a much higher cap on its rebate - the state can give as much as US$2 million back to the producers. 

"Other states have been very aggressive," says Costigan. "They've approached the studio, and said, `Here's why you should shoot here.' Florida approached us, New Mexico, Louisiana." 

(Paul Sirmons, film commissioner for the state of Florida, confirmed that Dallas producers have spoken with his Jacksonville office about the possibility of shooting there - though he says the producers approached Florida, and not the other way around. "We are not trying to steal Dallas from Texas," he emphasises.) 

Competition among states and other countries for film productions has been heating up over the course of the past decade, especially after - in the early 90s - Canada began offering lucrative deals to lure filmmakers there. (Costigan was an executive producer on Brokeback Mountain, another recent movie partly set in Texas; it was shot in Alberta.) With the average cost of a producing and marketing a studio production now topping $100 million, producers are eager to save every buck they can. That's especially the case with a movie like Dallas, where the budget for the stars' salaries alone could easily exceed US$40 million. 

Burkland says the Dallas Film Commission has been in negotiations with the Dallas producers for the past year. And she admits to some frustration that the city is being played off of other potential locations. 

"I had a hard time getting them to fess up about where the competition is," she says. "They were talking to Canada and Florida. Right now I haven't especially heard who besides us they were looking at." 

Burkland continues, "We're trying to cooperate ... I'm meeting with people to see what we can do. I can give them free office space, and there are other things we can do. ... They're waiting to see how much money we throw out. It's a who-blinks-first thing. ... (They're hoping) to get us to open that checkbook. But not too many cities have a checkbook." 

Hudgins says that states have every right to feel as if they're being taken advantage of by the Hollywood studios. But he also suggests that Texas' ego needs to be placed aside. 

"The studios are happy to see the states in these incentive wars," he says. "But the fact is that there's real business to be garnered. You can either be in the game or not." Good, well-paying jobs will go to Texans who work on the production, he says. "It has the potential to have a major impact on the state." 

So why has it taken so long for Texas to get more competitive? And why the delay in getting Senate Bill 1142 funded? 

According to both Hudgins and Burkland, it's hard to convince voters and legislators of the pressing importance of the legislation, especially when they're embroiled in more pressing matters, such as school financing. A spokesperson for state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas - who was the sponsor of Senate Bill 1142 - confirmed that there is virtually no possibility of a special legislative session being called to fund the bill but emphasized that Carona is hopeful it will be funded in the next official session, beginning in January. (Repeated requests to speak with Carona or a staff member for attribution were denied.) 

In the meantime, the question of whether Dallas will lose Dallas should be answered within the next few weeks, as casting details on the film are completed and the production is green-lighted by Fox. 

Costigan insists he would much prefer to shoot the film in Texas. "Creatively, we absolutely want to be in Dallas. But what's hard for us is that we have to make our arguments to the studio about why it's worth spending a lot more money - potentially millions of dollars - to shoot the film in Dallas." 

Burkland worries that what might have been a major boon for Dallas civic pride has the potential to turn into a public joke. 

"It's a black eye to all of us if it's shot somewhere else," she says. 

And Hudgins fears we might see a replay of another famous case where a major American city lost a movie that bore its name. 

"When I worked for the Illinois Film Commission, I was involved with the film Chicago, which was shot in Toronto," he says. "Let me just say, none of us were cheering for Chicago to win the Oscar. It was very, very frustrating (that they couldn't get the production to shoot in Illinois). But it was millions and millions of dollars difference, between what we could offer them and what Toronto could." 

- Copyright (C) 2006 KRT News Service


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