Hollywood is preparing to bring Marcellus Shale oil and natural gas drilling to the big screen next winter and has started filming in Western Pennsylvania.

The Focus Features film, Promised Land, will star Matt Damon and John Krasinski and will be directed by Gus Van Sant. The studio said the film will also star Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy and Titus Welliver. Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay for the film, which is based on a short story by Dave Eggers called “Gold Mist.”

Focus said Damon and McDormand will play corporate executives who travel to a rural town and try to purchase land rights for Marcellus Shale drilling. The town has reportedly been hit by hard economic times, and the executives believe the local citizenry will accept their offers as welcome relief. But a respected schoolteacher (Holbrook) and a grassroots campaign manager (Krasinski) oppose their plans.

According to media reports, filming for Promised Land began last weekend in Worthington Borough, which is in Armstrong County, PA. Meanwhile, a Facebook page for the movie said the filmmakers were looking for paid extras and would be holding casting calls throughout May.

Written as a contemporary drama, Promised Land is sure to differ from 2010’s Gasland, the controversial documentary that leveled several unsubstantiated attacks against shale drilling and production practices and touched off a public relations nightmare for the oil and gas industry (see Shale Daily, Feb. 18, 2011; Jan. 26, 2011).

Although it was unclear how — or even if — hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would be portrayed in the film, American Petroleum Institute spokesman Carlton Carroll said the practice would be an “easy target” for the filmmakers.

“We will wait to see how the industry is portrayed in the film before commenting further,” Carroll told NGI’s Shale Daily.

Chris Tucker, spokesman for the industry-backed shale gas education initiative Energy In Depth (EID), said the film was almost certain to make a statement on fracking.

“The question becomes how much of the focus is on hydraulic fracturing?” Tucker told NGI’s Shale Daily. “Are they going to lose 92% of their audience with that? We don’t know how they’re going to represent it. It’s obviously something we’re concerned about because Matt Damon is going to go on TV and do interviews with all the late night folks, and [fracking] is probably going to come up.”

But Tucker added that EID wasn’t overly worried about the film’s release, either.

“This thing isn’t going to run until next winter, and I think they’re going to find out that we’ve actually turned the corner here in terms of dispelling some of the myths that have been around for the last couple of years,” Tucker said. “I think we’re getting closer to the point where we’re actually building that critical mass of education. So they might find that the timing is not ideal for the release of this [film].”

Spokespersons for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Range Resources Corp. — two heavyweight producers in the region as well as industry supporter America’s Natural Gas Alliance — could not be reached for comment.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), 27 oil and natural gas wells (22 Marcellus, five non-Marcellus) have been drilled in Armstrong County this year. The DEP does not distinguish between Marcellus and Utica wells in its permitting and drilling figures.