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Christmas came early Tuesday night for a few hundred Utahns, cast and crew of a Utah-made holiday movie that made its Utah premiere.

The Utah Film Commission played host to the screening of "12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue" at the Megaplex 12 at The Gateway, an event that brought out the film's director, Kieth Merrill, megaproducer Ken Kragen, and members of the cast and crew.

"This is very exciting for Kieth and myself," Kragen told the audience. "We have not seen it with an audience, anywhere."

Kragen said "12 Dogs of Christmas" is quite personal to him, since it began when his 7-year-old daughter Emma wrote parody lyrics of "The 12 Days of Christmas" — which was later turned into a children's book.

Merrill then wrote a screenplay adapting the book into a Depression-era story about kids staging a Christmas pageant to save a dog orphanage. The first movie has sold 1.2 million DVDs since its 2005 release — and its continued popularity on DVD and Netflix persuaded Kragen and Merrill to make a sequel.

In the new film, the kids are now high-schoolers, and decide to restage their original pageant to again save the dog orphanage from the clutches of a greedy tycoon (Sean Patrick Flanery) who wants to build a dog-racing track on the site.

The movie was filmed this summer in Utah, primarily in the Heber Valley and in Salt Lake City. Kragen gushed about the Utah locations and talent. "I've made 400, 500 hours of film and television, and this was the best experience of my life," Kragen said, adding that he wants to make all his movies in Utah, "unless it's set in New York City — but maybe we could re-create New York City here."

Merrill, a Utah native, joked that this project was especially important to his wife, Dagny.

"We have 23 of our grandchildren in this movie, and she was determined to get each of them equal screen time," Merrill joked. "Our editor's not here tonight, he's still in therapy."

"12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue" will land on DVD shelves next Tuesday, Oct. 9. Kragen promised Utah audiences would get another chance to see it on a big screen, with a two-day engagement in December at Kingsbury Hall.

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