Three new Netflix shows — including Drew Barrymore's cannibal comedy — help lift the Santa Clarita film industry

With its mix of dry, empty wilderness and suburban sprawl, Santa Clarita is a cinematically versatile area known as Hollywood’s backlot for its ability to double for locations including the Wild West, war-torn Iraq and small town USA.

This week, Santa Clarita will take on a role that it has seldom played: itself.

Netflix’s cannibal comedy series “Santa Clarita Diet,” which debuts Friday, was shot in the Los Angeles suburb whose cookie-cutter homes serve as the backdrop for a farcical story about a real estate agent (Drew Barrymore) who develops an appetite for human flesh.

The new series is one of three new Netflix shows that have recently helped to lift the Santa Clarita film industry. The city still sees far fewer productions than L.A., but it has outpaced its bigger neighbor in terms of growth in the last five years.

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“This is the busiest I’ve seen [the city] in the past 40 years,” said Mike DeLorenzo, president of Santa Clarita Studios. He said the studio has been operating at capacity since the introduction of California’s enhanced tax incentives. Santa Clarita Studios has expanded to 16 soundstages, with three new ones opening in the last three years.

“As great as it is for us, it’s also great for the filmmakers,” he said. Instead of traveling to other states, “they can go home to their families.”

Since 2011, Santa Clarita has seen the number of on-location shoot days climb 52%, reaching 1,366 last year, according to the city’s film office. The uptick is partly attributable to the area’s movie ranches, some of which have come under the jurisdiction of the city’s film office in the last five years after previously falling under the purview of the L.A. film office.

For the same period, the greater L.A. area, not including Santa Clarita, saw a 33% rise in shoot days, with 2016 reaching a record high of 39,605 days, according to FilmLA, the nonprofit group that handles film permits in the city and county.

Officials attribute the growth to California’s expanded tax-incentive program, which took effect in 2015 and is intended to reverse the exodus of TV and film productions to other states.

“Episodic TV is what we see the most of,” said Evan Thomason, who heads Santa Clarita’s film office. “But we also have seen features return.”  Those include two Disney movies — “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Magic Camp” — which are currently shooting at Santa Clarita Studios and are receiving millions of dollars in tax credits.

Netflix has two other shows that have filmed in Santa Clarita — the reality competition series “Ultimate Beastmaster,” debuting Feb. 24, and the upcoming “Atypical,” a scripted series about a family with an autistic teenager.

None of the Netflix series qualifies for the tax incentive because the program excludes reality shows and half-hour scripted shows that have not relocated from other states. HBO’s “Ballers” — a half-hour series that recently relocated from Florida and that has filmed in Santa Clarita — received tax credit allocations of more than $8 million for its third season.

Many of the most popular Netflix series film out of state. “Stranger Things” films in Georgia while series such as “Orange Is the New Black,” “Daredevil” and “Luke Cage” shoot in the New York area. 

The Los Gatos, Calif., streaming giant has been expanding its slate of original series in an effort  to own more of its content instead of licensing it.

What drew Netflix to Santa Clarita? The makers of “Santa Clarita Diet” said the bland, organized quality of the city’s bedroom communities was a crucial component of the series. “It’s a nice juxtaposition to the horror and chaos that would be the center of the show,” said Victor Fresco, the showrunner and creator.

The L.A. locations that are often used to represent middle-class America “really aren’t because L.A. is so expensive,” Fresco said. The Santa Clarita area “is made up of teachers, firefighters, law enforcement personnel … who commute into L.A.”

The comedy series filmed exterior scenes throughout the city, but the interiors for the house owned by the central couple (Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant) were created on sets at the Santa Clarita Studios.

A grisly scene where Barrymore and Olyphant get caught burying human remains in the wilderness was shot at the Mystery Mesa section of Agua Dulce Movie Ranch, which has hosted such notable shoots as Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.”

It is one of the area’s several movie ranches that draw productions in search of wide-open spaces.The Blue Cloud Ranch has added 150 acres in the last year and a half and doubled its parking, said Dylan Lewis, who acquired the ranch in 2015. The ranch has served as Iraq in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” and the indie war drama “The Yellow Birds,” which recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Most of the people we hear from have been excited about the tax credit,” said Lewis. He said the ranch sees mostly TV shoots and military-themed productions. 

Santa Clarita’s mix of suburbia, wilderness and soundstages offers a wide variety of looks in close proximity. The city is also located in Hollywood’s so-called 30-mile zone, which allows productions to pay the same per-diem rate to crew members as in L.A.

But Santa Clarita can pose challenges, like the wildfires that accompany intense heat during the summer. Last year’s Sand fire damaged some of the movie ranches in the area.

“We were fortunate that we were able to fight it and save the ranch,” said Steve Arklin, the owner and manager of the Rancho Deluxe movie ranch. “We have some burnt forests and landscapes. But we also have green forests and unburned areas.”

He said business has bounced back. Two HBO series recently filmed at the ranch — “Westworld,” which took advantage of its vast wilderness areas, and “The Young Pope,” which used the ranch’s Mediterranean-style villa. 

Another challenge is working with local homeowner associations that may not want production crews disrupting their quiet neighborhoods, according to Brooks Bonston, a location manager for “Santa Clarita Diet.”

In Santa Clarita, “everything is under an HOA,” Bonston said. While some neighborhoods don’t want film shoots, the city has become friendlier to productions in recent years — in part because more industry people live in the area, he said. Productions frequently compensate residents for disruptions, like having large trucks parked on their streets. 

“Parking is less of an issue than in parts of L.A.,” Bonston said. 

Other productions to set up shop in Santa Clarita in recent months include USA’s freshman series “Shooter,” which has filmed at Rancho Deluxe and on local stages.  CBS’ “NCIS,” now in its 14th season, continues to be a major presence in the area, based primarily out of Valencia Studios.

The last major series to showcase the Santa Clarita Valley as itself was Showtime’s “Weeds,” which ended in 2012. The comedy series filmed in Stevenson Ranch, which was re-dubbed Agrestic for the show. 

The area’s identical residential homes was a running gag in “Weeds,” as it is in “Santa Clarita Diet.”

“It’s an ordinary quality, an everyone’s-the-same quality,” said Kitty Doris-Bates, production designer on “Santa Clarita Diet.” “It’s 50 shades of beige.”

david.ng@latimes.com

@DavidNgLAT

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