Dallas Film Scene

Film scene’s changed, but Benji remains a prince of a pup

05:31 PM CDT on Thursday, August 19, 2004

Jane Sumner / The Dallas Morning News

Anyone who’s heard me speak in the community knows, Benji, the pooch Joe Camp parlayed into a franchise, inspired the Lone Star Outtakes column in Friday’s The Movies section.

Back in 1983, I was a lowly freelancer, but everyone on staff was Benji-ed out so I volunteered to visit the set of Joe’s new TV series, Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince. The day was a three-digit scorcher; the set, a parking lot in Terrell.

Only the dog was air-conditioned. (Benji sat at the end of a big corrugated tube of cold air.) Joe was yelling, the F/X wouldn’t work and the location was hotter than a devil’s anvil.

But producer Carolyn Camp, literally Joe’s better half, kept her cool, the Dallas crew soldiered on in high spirits and the actors playing Martians in head-to-toe black spandex didn’t whimper.

The company’s esprit triggered a campaign to give such wonderful, hard-working Texans some print. And eventually, what was then called Film & TV Outtakes began to report on everything from RoboCop to Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss.

On Friday, a new Benji film comes out to bookend 20 years of the beat. But the dog is different and so is production in Texas. In fact, there have been tectonic shifts with words such as unionization, state incentives, Canada and Austin.

In the palmy ’80s, Big D was the state’s production center with films such as Silkwood, Tender Mercies and Places in the Heart fetching Oscar noms and gold. Each summer the feuding Ewing clan arrived to shoot exteriors for the TV series seen round the world.

In 1985, David Byrne came to make his deadpan musical satire, True Stories, and FilmDallas, a movie investment group that later folded, brought Horton Foote’s haunting play, Trip to Bountiful, to the screen.

Meanwhile, Austin was pretty much a blip on the production charts with an occasional feature such as the execrable The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, wacky, entertaining Songwriter and sly Blood Simple by a couple of Northlanders, Joel and Ethan Coen.

Enter the original, inventive autodidact Richard Linklater with Slacker; an irrepressible cartoonist, Robert Rodriguez, that rebel without a crew with El Mariachi; and eventually, engineer turned witty animator and filmmaker Mike Judge with Office Space.

In Austin recently, McKinney resident Gary Jay, who operated “A” camera on Michael Mann’s sensational-looking thriller Collateral, felt a wave of nostalgia.

“It reminded me of the way Dallas was in 1980,” he says. “There are lots of new projects, people are working their way up through the ranks and a thriving, growing film community.”

In the ’80s, features and movies of the week, such as NBC’s Peyton Place: The Second Generation, regularly shot in Dallas. But after they heard Canada’s siren song of weak dollars and financial incentives, producers danced off to The Maple Leaf Rag.

When coyote-smart Tom Copeland started in 1983 at the state film commission he’s led so ably for nine years, Texas was being touted as a right-to-work state.

“It was a time of mixed crews ? union and nonunion,” he says. “Then ultimately in ’96, across-the-board, across the country, nearly everyone was unionized. They thought it would kill us. It didn’t, but the days of going from one state to another for [cheaper] labor were over.”

New challenge

Now, he says, the challenge comes from 12 other states, including neighboring Louisiana and New Mexico, which, unlike Texas, offer enticing producer incentives. New Mexico proffers loans, and Louisiana dispenses state income tax credits.

When this beat began, Irving had a film office but Dallas didn’t. And when Dallas did ante up, then-North Texas film commissioner Roger Burke had to race around, hat in hand, recruiting 20 other cities to flesh out his comparatively meager budget.

During the years, the office dealt with three Oliver Stone films, eight seasons of Chuck Norris’ slam-bang modern Western series Walker, Texas Ranger and countless documentaries, commercials and independent films.

Though the city kept stepping on his oxygen hose, Roger persevered, moving the film office around like a floating crap game and beating back opposition, including attempts to get his job.

Good move

But when the city did officially snap to the benefits of a biz that, as former Gov. Ann Richards says, doesn’t pollute and takes its trash with it, the commission finally moved, sans Roger, to where it should have been all along: the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Last year, thanks in large part to The Alamo, Austin hosted more than $190 million of the state’s estimated $229 million in combined film and TV budgets, but Dallas still has aces up its sleeve, including a fiercely competitive film commission, a one-stop city permit office, experienced talent and crew, seasoned equipment and service suppliers and an army of indigenous independent filmmakers burning to break through.

Loving the original Benji and the late Carolyn Camp, I wasn’t eager to pat the new model, meet the second Mrs. Camp or see Benji Off the Leash!, which shot in Utah.

But the new pup takes your heart, Kathleen Wolff Camp is a lovely, full-of-spunk attorney and the movie, well, it may be Joe’s best. Things change. We have to keep up or get out of the way.


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