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Lawsuit filed in Durango seeks to resolve contract dispute between moviemaking businesses

Complaint says film studio took money to build sets that were never made
John Harper, general manager of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, is one of the owners of Old Tucson Entertainment, the plaintiff in the complaint against Filmwest Studios. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A complaint filed last week in 6th Judicial District Court in La Plata County accuses an Arizona film studio of breaching a contract with an Arizona entertainment company related to a movie set and theme park.

The plaintiff, Old Tuscon Entertainment, is owned in part by John Harper, who is general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

According to the complaint, Filmwest Studios signed a design and construction agreement on July 21 with Old Tucson Entertainment to build movie sets for the studio within a time frame agreed upon by the plaintiff and the defendant. The complaint accuses Filmwest Studios of failing to build the sets, and instead contracting out the work to a third party (the sets have not been built to date), moving the agreed-upon time frame, and refusing to return the $300,000 paid by the plaintiff once the defendant was in breach of contract.

In an interview Thursday, Harper said the case is in early litigation, so he cannot share too many details. “I just hope to keep things moving forward and to get this resolved quickly,” he said.

Built in 1939, Old Tucson Studios sits just west of Tucson and has been the location for many western television shows and movies, including “Little House on the Prairie,” “El Dorado” and “Tombstone,” according to its website.

In 1960, it was opened to the public as a theme park, where park-goers can watch stunt performances, shootouts and can-can shows. However, in August 2020, it closed because of COVID-19, and Pima County, the owner of the property, opened a bidding process for the company. Harper and his partners were able to obtain the company in April 2022. Harper then established a consulting partnership with the studio.

Old Tucson Entertainment, under Harper’s tutelage, is demanding a return of its property from Filmwest Studios, namely the $300,000, as well as court fees and any damages caused by loss of the money.


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