Just about every day, somewhere in Ventura County, the camera is rolling.
The county is a popular location for all types of filming, from car commercials to feature films. As with real estate, it's location, location, location that ranks the county second only to Los Angeles County statewide in film activity.
A 1996 study by the Motion Picture Assn. of America found Ventura County's economy received a $351-million annual boost from filmmaking.
Besides simple proximity, the reason Ventura County keeps showing up on screen is that its country roads, beaches and main streets can pass for Anytown, USA. Among productions filming there last month were an independent film about teenagers traveling back in time to foil a bank robbery, an episode of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" TV series and a commercial for the Playboy Channel.
Then there is the movie Julia Roberts was filming, "Erin Brockovich." A total of 140 actors and crew members were in Ventura and Oxnard for a month earlier this summer. Their filming in a Ventura neighborhood and at the city's Main Street Restaurant and Steak House drew considerable attention from locals.
The movie, based on a true story, tells the tale of a twice-divorced mother of three who helped a Westlake Village attorney win a $330-million settlement against a company that had knowingly contaminated water in a Northern California town.
"Erin Brockovich" producer Michael Shamberg said the Universal Pictures and Jersey Films project chose to work in Ventura County for five of its 11 production weeks because scouts found locations that were "true to the original story."
"It was first and foremost the look, and probably in equal measure the ease of filming," Shamberg said. "The traffic isn't as dense [as in Los Angeles]. You can get to and from faster."
And the weather is cooler and the people are friendlier, Shamberg said.
"People have been absolutely lovely to us," he said.
Traditionally, Ventura County has not had to work hard to lure the cameras. But the nascent Ventura County Film Council wants more.
Formed in December, the council is an alliance of the county and its 10 cities. It has been promoting the area at trade shows and is putting together marketing material to tout its locations and advantages over Los Angeles'.
The only problem with the new campaign is that no money has been set aside for the effort.
"I don't think the county understands that you need a full-time marketing effort," said Leland Hammerschmitt, a filmmaker who is Ojai's representative to the 11-member council. He thinks the group needs its own staff and budget.
Even with limited resources, the council has made strides since its formation, said Chairman David Kleitsch, who represents Ventura and is the city's economic development manager. Cities are sharing leads with each other, and scouts are using a CD catalog of locations.
"It appears to be paying off so far," Kleitsch said. "We've seen an increase in interest since we've had this effort underway."
Ventura County wants to attract filmmaking because, like tourism, it is a nonpolluting industry that places very little long-term burden on the area. Most crews are based in Los Angeles. When the cameras stop rolling, they pack up and go home.
"They come in, they do their shoot and they go," Kleitsch said.
Some say the monetary benefits are not as great as advertised, however. In California, according to a study by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, filmmaking is a $27.5-billion industry.
But the Ventura County Film Council, which is working on its own study, thinks the MPAA's $351-million figure for the county is inflated because it includes the salaries of stars who do not live in the county. Roberts, for one, is reportedly being paid $20 million for "Erin Brockovich," nearly half of what it will cost to make the picture.
Still, even with that qualifier, a big-budget production can funnel enormous benefits into the local economy, said Romy David, manager of Santa Ventura Studios, where "Erin Brockovich" was filming.
"They're dropping a lot of money. It's not to be underestimated," David said. "Everybody benefits, from the swap meet to the hotels and absolutely everything in between."
Film production's most obvious benefit is in permit fees, which vary from nothing in Camarillo to several hundred dollars a day in most places. Filming in areas controlled by Ventura County, for example, costs $395 for the first day and $150 for every day thereafter. Other fees may apply, depending on the type of production.
That is steep compared to Los Angeles, several location managers said. If Ventura County wants to increase filming, they said, it should lower the fees. It should also streamline the permit process.
"I'll have four locations on my L.A. city-L.A. County permit and it will cost me one-tenth of what it will cost me for Ventura County," said Andrew Gardiner, location manager for a low-budget family movie recently filming in Piru.
"They need to consolidate it down so I as a location manager can call up and talk to one person and away we go," suggested Evan Peller, who said he had to deal with several offices in order to film a scene on a county road.
As Ventura County and its cities become more aggressive in their efforts to attract filmmaking, they plan to examine the permitting process further. Cities elsewhere often charge nothing for permits, knowing that any fees are far outweighed by the economic benefits of allowing filming.
Despite these things, David said that judging by what she heard from the crew of "Erin Brockovich," Ventura County should become a hot spot for big stars and their productions. The crew for the Roberts film complimented the area's restaurants, shops and residents, David said. Some talked about moving here.
"It's a great industry to promote," David said, "because they have so much money and so much of it gets left in the community."