Tuesday, Feb 28, 2006
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Posted on Fri, Feb. 24, 2006

‘Dallas’ movie … in Florida?

Texas faces big challenge wooing film crews to state

By CHRISTOPHER KELLY Knight Ridder Newspapers

FORT WORTH, Texas — 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 also could 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 rumored to be in negotiations.

The movie is expected to be in the spirit of such recent, slightly tongue-in-cheek TV-to-movie transfers as “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” It easily could 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 ultimately could 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 $2 million back to the producers.

“Other states have been very aggressive,” Costigan says. “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 emphasizes.)

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 1990s — 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 such as “Dallas,” where the budget for the stars’ salaries alone could easily exceed $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 states have every right to feel as if they’re being taken advantage of. But he also suggests that Texas’ ego needs to be placed aside.