Indianapolis 500 movie racing toward big screen

A locally born initiative to make a movie about the first Indianapolis 500 has cleared a major obstacle to getting its project to big screens nationwide by May 2011—in time for the race’s centennial.

Justin Escue, founder and president of My First Bike Productions, said his company has commitments for the $30 million to $40 million needed to produce a movie about the 1911 Indianapolis 500. He’s also signed a pair of heavyweight Hollywood executive producers for the film, tentatively called "500."

"We brought potential investors in for this year’s Indianapolis 500, and they were all quite impressed," said Escue, a 33-year-old Hoosier with a deep affinity for open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500.

Angelo Pizzo, creator of the movies "Hoosiers" and "Rudy," recently finished the screenplay for the movie, and helped Escue sign executive producers Barry Josephson and Doug Falconer.

Before starting his own firm, Josephson was president of worldwide productions at Hollywood-based Columbia Pictures, producing such hits as "Men in Black," "Air Force One," "In the Line of Fire" and "The Fifth Element." Josephson’s most recent box-office success, "Enchanted," earned two Golden Globe and three Oscar nominations, plus a Critic’s Choice Award for Best Family Film. He’s also executive producer of the popular television series "Bones."

Falconer is a Calgary native who played in the Canadian Football League. He later moved to Los Angeles and became chairman of Pacific Media and Entertainment.

"These guys are the real deal," Pizzo said. "They are very entrenched in Hollywood and know how to make a project like this happen. They believe in the project enough to invest some of their own money, and that says something."

Casting for the film is set to begin this summer, Escue said, and he hopes to sign A-list actors. Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks, who command up to $20 million a movie, would likely be too expensive. But Pizzo said lots of well-known actors and some talented up-and-comers who would work for substantially less have expressed an interest in the film.

"A lot of actors love racing, and this script is like a significant part of history," Pizzo said. "These are some very big inducements."

Top-shelf actors aren’t the only ones interested in being part of the project, he added.

"You can’t believe how many top, top race car drivers have expressed interest in being in this film," Pizzo said.

After casting wraps up in October, Escue hopes to sign a distribution deal with a major movie company, but he and Pizzo emphasized they will not relinquish artistic control. The plan is to start filming next May.

The first of 40 replica 1911 Indianapolis 500 race cars was finished in June by Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Coker Tire Co. Escue said the other 39 will be completed in six to eight months.

Land has been secured in Newton County, about an hour north of Lafayette, to build a replica of the early 20th century Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Escue said a plan to build the replica closer to Indianapolis was abandoned for the option in Newton County because an investor in the movie has land there.

Local track designer Paxton Waters has been hired to build the track, and Escue said Illinois-based Prairie Hills Motorsport Club will operate the facility after filming is complete.

"This deal will allow the facility to stay standing after the filming as a tourist attraction," Escue said. "People can walk into May 30, 1911."

A film tax credit passed during the special session of this year’s General Assembly should help this project, but not as much as the project’s producers had hoped.

State lawmakers settled on a 15-percent tax credit on all production expenses derived within the state’s borders, but capped that credit to $2.5 million for all movies made in Indiana within a calendar year.

Local movie makers had hoped for a $5 million cap, as was the provision for a law passed during the 2008 General Assembly. That law was replaced with the one passed during this year’s session, effectively halving the cap. But there was also fear that the tax credit could be repealed altogether, prompting producers of the Indianapolis 500 movie to call the law passed this year "a small victory."

If Escue’s movie is made, it could be a huge boost for the local movie industry, said Steve Marra, writer and director for locally based Adrenaline Motion Pictures.

"One of the big things that makes a movie like this difficult to make is, no one in the industry thinks you can make a movie in Indiana," Marra said. "If a project of this size can be pulled off here using local talent, it would be huge for the entire state and could open a new chapter of movie making here."

Marra thinks the movie would have a bigger impact than previous films, such as "Hoosiers" and "Breaking Away," because all or most of the filming and post-production work would be done locally. 

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