What if a creative team representing perhaps the three coolest-hottest shows on TV at the moment decided to make Nashville the home of their next project? It's not an idle question. If all goes well, a Nashville-set pilot could shoot here before the end of the year, with an eye toward a full series commitment—and its pedigree isn't exactly The Real World Cancun.The pilot, Tough Trade, centers on three generations of a Nashville country-music dynasty who supply enough conflict and family intrigue for at least three more Hanks. The script was written by Chris Offutt, the acclaimed Kentucky-born novelist who's left his teeth marks on HBO's smash vampire series True Blood as a writer and story editor.
Also involved are Jenji Kohan, creator of Showtime's Weeds (for which Offutt has also written), who will serve as an executive producer, and Scott Hornbacher, whose résumé includes producing credits on both Mad Men and The Sopranos.
Plans for the pilot were announced back in February, when Tough Trade was unveiled as the first original pilot commissioned for the fledgling cable channel Epix. A partnership of Viacom (which owns Paramount), MGM and Lionsgate, Epix intends to challenge rivals such as Starz, providing movies in high definition as well as original programming such as concerts and TV series. In February, Epix announced it planned an October launch.
Yet even though the script is set in Nashville and features a country-music milieu, that was no guarantee the project would actually shoot here. Michael Lewis' book The Blind Side may be the true story of football player Michael Oher's harsh upbringing on the streets of Memphis. But when it came time to shoot the movie version, coming in November with Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock, the part of the Bluff City was played by Atlanta—where home state Georgia provides one of the nation's most alluring production-incentive packages.
"We've had our whole office working on this for two years," says Perry Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission. In the end, it may have come down to two factors: the persistence of TFEMC staffers, and the desire of the filmmakers not to sacrifice authenticity.
"This is one of the few times movies get to do this," says Gary Goodman, executive vice president of TV production for Lionsgate, the studio producing Tough Trade. In the cash-strapped current economic climate, production companies are chasing incentives packages to states such as the aforementioned Georgia and Michigan. But the creative team behind Tough Trade wanted "the real deal," Goodman says.
"When people tell us no, we don't stop," says Gisela Moore, TFEMC assistant to the director, with a laugh. "Not until they slam the door in our face and tell us not to come back."
Of all the big fish that state film commissions hope to land, an hour-long episodic TV drama ranks as a marlin. A big movie will spend quickly and leave, and that's it. A reality-TV show may linger a long time at a given facility, but it rarely has the budget or crew requirements to fill a lot of lucrative technical positions with local crew.
By comparison, a TV drama that catches a wave and rides three or four seasons can become almost an industry unto itself. Locals still fondly recall the good old days of the 1994 TV show Christy, which set up for two seasons in the town of Townsend in East Tennessee, giving work to actors and crew members from across the state.
"A TV series can give us seven to nine months of employment," Gibson says. "And word of mouth about this being a great place to film can make a huge difference in attracting others."
"When we go somewhere, we try to use as much local crew as possible," Goodman says.
A unit production manager has been quietly scouting Nashville locations recently, reportedly seeking houses that could serve as a country superstar's crib. (Calling Alan Jackson.) In the meantime, the script is reportedly being readied for production. A source who had read an early draft described it as a page-turner with a story along the lines of Dallas or Dynasty: "When I finished it, I couldn't wait to see what came next." It is not known whether Tough Trade will have the R-rated edge associated with HBO's and Showtime's original programming (though one can hope).
Goodman referred questions about casting and other specifics to a publicist, but little information was available.
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