This town is going prime time like never before.
The gambling resort along the Colorado River is one of the stars of the new CBS series "Viva Laughlin," about businessman Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) who is determined to open a casino despite financial pressures, murder suspicions and competition from gaming mogul Nicky Fontana (Emmy winner Hugh Jackman) who doesn't want an up-and-comer moving in on his turf.
The network appears to have high expectations for the drama, giving it a Sunday-night time slot right behind "60 Minutes." And folks in Laughlin couldn't be more pleased.
"We're really excited about it," said Meg McDaniel of the Laughlin Visitors Bureau. "The national exposure is invaluable. We couldn't pay for that kind of advertising and the potential for what it could bring to Laughlin."
There's good reason to think the series will encourage vacationers to visit. Nearly eight in 10 users of the movie-ticketing Web site fandango.com said in a recent poll they would be interested in checking out a location where a movie or TV show has been shot or is currently being shot.
"Movies and TV shows are the new electronic tourist brochures," said Harry Medved, author of "Hollywood Escapes," a book that profiles locations where dozens of films were shot, and a fandango.com spokesman. "People are getting ideas where to travel based on what they
It's no secret that a good movie or television show can attract tourists. The baseball diamond built by Kevin Costner's character in 1989's "Field of Dreams" still draws tens of thousands annually to Dyersville, Iowa; tours through parts of New York City based on "Seinfeld" and "Sex and the City" continue to sell out; and "Sideways" created a demand for wine country tours around Santa Barbara and also boosted the sales of certain wines.
"Whenever you say a star has dined at a certain restaurant, it has cachet," Medved said. "There's an allure about, say, a place where Arnold Schwarzenegger eats. But in some ways it's even more exciting to say that a star has not only been here, but he has been here in a production that you see every week. The fact that it's presented as a colorful locale on TV, and you can actually go there - it's just an incredible boon."
When it comes to tourism, it may not even matter to viewers that most of "Viva Laughlin" is actually being taped on a studio lot in Los Angeles. After all, "Brokeback Mountain" did wonders for the tourist trade in Wyoming, even though the stunning mountain vistas captured in the 2005 movie can't be found anywhere in the state. Director Ang Lee shot the Oscar-winner in Canada.
"We did have increased tourism the summer following the (release of the) movie, and we also saw an increase in travel- related stories because of the film," said Michell Howard, manager of the Wyoming film office, who estimated the value of the stories talking up the state were worth about $3 million in publicity.
While location shooting for "Viva Laughlin" is limited because of money and time issues, several key scenes in the premiere, which will have a sneak peek Oct. 18 after "CSI," were shot in Laughlin.
One is when Jackman's villainous casino owner struts out of his helicopter, which is parked atop Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort. Another comes later, when Nicky is conspiring with one of his lieutenants along the Riverwalk just outside the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall.
But for the most part, the show's producers have sent "B" units - without the show's stars - to film exterior shots of the casinos or sequences that can be manipulated later with the use of CGI. Co-executive producer Tyler Bensinger would like to change that practice once the series hits its stride.
"Laughlin is a place that is fantastic to shoot," he said. "It's so visual, and it's so striking that we'd like to spend as much time there as possible."
Despite Laughlin's beauty - particularly when it's viewed at sunset from the Arizona side of the Colorado River with the lights of the casinos reflected in the water - the town has appeared in relatively few television shows or movies. Most notably, it was the place Gwyneth Paltrow wanted to escape from as a flight attendant in the 2003 comedy "A View From the Top."
More often, Laughlin has an anonymous scene, or it doubles for someplace else, as it did in 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas." That's why casino operators are not letting the national exposure pass quietly. The Riverside will launch an online contest with prizes that include a mini vacation at the resort and a copy of the series on DVD.
"It's smart to use the show to their advantage," Howard said. "When we would get calls about 'Brokeback,' we didn't say, 'It was shot in Canada, goodbye.' We would say it was based on a certain area because the short story was written by a woman (Annie Proulx) who lives here in Wyoming. You try to make as many tie-ins and connections as you can."
Speaking of connections, "Viva Laughlin" could spur the need for more of them with the Laughlin-Bullhead City airport, if viewers - especially those who live beyond an easy drive - decide to see in person what they're watching on television. Currently the Riverside and Harrah's Laughlin are the leading casinos in town that offer flight-and-
The Riverside, which has the largest program of the two and flew in 28,000 guests last year via Sun Country Airlines, has flights to 74 cities in 26 states, including three California cities - Redding, Sacramento and San Jose. Harrah's, which uses Allegiant Air, also has flights into those cities plus four others in the Golden State (Fresno, Oakland, Ontario and San Diego).
"The show will certainly give Laughlin some needed national exposure, and I would like to believe there will be greater interest in visiting Laughlin, which would translate into a greater need for flights," McDaniel said.
Of course, the bulk of Laughlin's 3.1 million visitors last year drove in from either Southern California or Arizona, and that won't change with the debut of "Viva Laughlin." But regulars will notice one difference: The TV version of the town has been dressed up, particularly when the characters break into song (Owen's duet with Elvis Presley on "Viva Las Vegas" is a classic entree into the series).
"We're still getting the tone, but a lot of the flavor of Laughlin will be in the show, although for network TV it will probably be a little glossier and a little slicker than the reality," Bensinger said. "We would love to play things on the river or play things on the bridge - all of the things that make Laughlin Laughlin are things that we're planning to do."
But now that Laughlin has gone Hollywood, don't think the exposure will go to its head.
"It's still going to have that small-town atmosphere." McDaniel said. "The people who live and work here are just like the customers who come to Laughlin. They like the laid-back atmosphere - something more comfortable and maybe at a slower pace. That's why we all live here, and that won't change."
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