Santa Clarita a one-stop location

Suburban sprawl adds to city's versatility

If you hang a right off North San Fernando Road in Santa Clarita, Calif., and go past the ranch-style homes, preschools and palm nurseries, you’ll eventually reach “Deadwood” — the set of HBO’s cult Western show at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio.

Since wrapping in April 2006, the majority of the show’s sets are still intact, though that comes as no surprise, considering the ranch was once owned by Gene Autry and used for such TV series as “The Lone Ranger.”

More striking than the absence of “Deadwood’s” Dakota Black Hills in the distance (those are digitally inserted) is the fact that the ranch interiors were used for HBO’s surfer drama “John From Cincinnati.”

Melody Ranch is just one of the many charms of Santa Clarita — a suburban foothold 26 miles or so from Hollywood. Since the silent film days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the 48-square-mile zone has served as a backlot, cherished for its varied terrain of deserts, verdant mountains and winding roads.

But in recent years, urban sprawl has encroached. Santa Clarita Valley’s population has jumped from 48,000 in 1971 to 177,200 this year. By 2020, that number is expected to hit 210,000.

The building frenzy was further fueled last summer when Six Flags announced it was considering a sell-off of its Magic Mountain amusement property, worth $200 million, heightening concerns about further development. (Since then, Six Flags has decided to keep the park due to its potential profits.)

“I had a big concern that the city wasn’t going to protect our ridgelines,” exclaims a local film scout about the area’s mountainside view northwest of Magic Mountain.

In the face of the buildup stands the Santa Clarita Film Office, posting $21.3 million of economic impact from local production for its July ’06-June ’07 fiscal year — its best ever since issuing permits separately from the L.A. film office in 2003. In addition, a record number of permits, 311, were issued with film days hitting a high of 852. Given that entertainment is the area’s fourth-largest industry, City Hall is rallying to protect its most prized asset to Southland filmmakers: open space.

“If you go to Beverly Hills, Long Beach or San Dimas, there’s no open land,” says location scout Ralph Coleman, who recently used the rugged SCV topography for Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas in the Sandra Bullock road movie “All About Steve.” “The only open land in the 30-mile Los Angeles zone is Santa Clarita.”

Even burned land is a hot commodity (no pun intended) in Santa Clarita. When a brush fire scorched the perimeter of Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch in 2004, which resides just outside the city line, ranch manager Steve Sligh fielded several requests for the land’s war-zone look.

Last month, the city’s property owners voted in favor of an open-space initiative to preserve land around SCV. While the impetus for the vote stemmed from environmental concerns of overbuilding and air quality, it is a “benefit to the film industry,” according to Santa Clarita Film Economic Development manager Jason Crawford.

Since last year, TV production has swelled 95% in SCV to 545 days while features have dipped 22% to 105 days. Santa Clarita Film and Tourism analyst Jessica Freude explains the office focuses its marketing on television since it’s their “bread-and-butter business,” given the city’s proximity to Hollywood for lengthy, thrifty TV shoots. In terms of features, Santa Clarita competes like the rest of California with Canadian and Louisiana tax incentives.

With SVC already home to several series on its 22 soundstages — including “Big Love,” “NCIS,” “The Unit,” “The Riches” and “Zoey 101” — it’s trying to attract the major studios into buying space at the Gate-King Industrial Park, a 184-acre parcel that can be transformed into production space.

And despite the encroachment of tract housing, many film and TV location scouts say such neighborhoods are not necessarily a negative.

“We chose Stevenson Ranch because of all its cookie-cutter homes which look alike,” says scout Brett Williams, who used the location for the home of Hayden Panettiere’s cheerleader in NBC’s “Heroes.”

“Santa Clarita has a Las Vegas topography and palette with its tract homes and nearby desert,” adds producer Louis Milito, who shoots “CSI” exteriors there.

While cities like Pasadena and L.A. neighborhoods such as Hancock Park get a bad rap from scouts for discouraging film shoots, Santa Clarita’s film office is eager to lure production to its purview, roughly defined as south of the 126 Freeway, east of Interstate 5 and west of Highway 14. The SCV film office boasts the cheapest permit in L.A.’s 30-mile zone: $394 per permit for 10 locations over 14 days vs. L.A.’s $450.

In addition, Santa Clarita is able to process permits in less than a day, whereas L.A. can take from two to four days.

“NCIS” co-exec producer Mark Horowitz says the “JAG” spinoff remained at SCV’s Valencia Studios after “JAG” finished, reasoning that it was “far less to rent warehouse space and convert into studio space than in L.A.

“I can take that difference in savings, on average 30%, and put it on the screen,” he says. “Office space alone in Hollywood is 50% more.”

While renting private open land can range anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per day, stepping foot on one of Santa Clarita’s historical movie ranches rivals the $1,000 to $3,000 per-day fees charged by stages in the Melrose-Vine area of Hollywood.

What continues to fuel filming in SCV, and keep housing construction at bay, are its dozen movie ranches that range from 80 to 1,000 acres.

Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch is an anomaly in the area, and one of the most coveted locations for its irrigated farmland, or what Sligh calls “the not California look.”

The property’s history with Walt Disney himself dates back to the ’50s when he first leased it for “Mickey Mouse Club” segments. Disney then purchased the land in 1959.

Highlights of Golden Oak’s 873-acres include various Western sets, grassy meadows, two creeks, a waterfall and a heliport.

And while the prospect of open land continues to be a magnet for shoots, the opposite effect is still a win-win situation for filmmakers and the film office alike. Says Golden Oak’s Sligh: “The more houses they build here, the more demand there is for us.”