Ventura County a Home Away From Home for Hollywood Productions

Times Staff Writer

Fillmore City Hall doesn't usually get this sort of a crowd. The three dozen people milling around the entrance are paid to be there.

The cables, lights, microphones and filming equipment are also clues this isn't a normal afternoon in Fillmore, a picture-perfect slice of small-town America.

A few yards from the City Hall entrance, actor Skeet Ulrich concludes a scene for his new ABC show, "Miracles," set to premiere Jan. 27.

Ventura County, a convenient location for Hollywood film crews, has long served as a backdrop for movies, television programs and commercials.

This fall alone, a ranch between Moorpark and Simi Valley became a Dr. Seuss-like village for Ron Howard's upcoming "The Cat in the Hat" movie, starring Mike Myers of "Austin Powers" fame.

Through November, there had been 407 days of Hollywood filming in Ventura County in 2002 -- and that was just in portions of the county outside its 10 cities, officials said.

Though no single agency keeps tab countywide, it is estimated that film activity generates millions of dollars in permit fees and indirect investment by directors and photographers seeking a special look that can't be found in Los Angeles or created on a sound stage.

"There is a lot of money that comes with film activities," said Janel L. Huff, president of the county Economic Development Collaborative, which runs the Ventura County Film Council.

"They need places to stay, somewhere to eat. I call it 'free dollars,' " Huff said. "They don't ask for infrastructure or schools. They come in, work and leave their dollars."

On the "Miracles" set, the four-car Fillmore and Western train slowly pulls away as a pale young girl holding a red balloon peers out the window at Ulrich, who plays a former seminary student who now investigates the validity of miraculous events.

"No!" he screams and sprints down the platform after the train, which backs up to its original position. He repeats his line a few times for the close-up, and then the 75-person crew breaks for a 30-minute catered lunch.

In all, some 80 members of this Touchstone Television crew came to Fillmore last month for two days of filming at City Hall, which doubled as a Hartford, Conn., train station, according to location manager Bob Gould.

Several areas around the county have historic buildings, he said, including Piru, Santa Paula and Moorpark. That makes it possible for a film crew to travel less than two hours from Los Angeles to re-create a more distant setting.

"When you come to a small town like this, it's nice. People still have a twinkle in their eye," Gould said. "That's really refreshing when you are used to working in L.A., where people seem to say, 'Those ... movie people.' "

Gould estimates his team added about $75,000 to the Ventura County economy in 48 hours, counting hotel bills, train rental, city and county permit fees, pay for sheriff's deputies handling crowd control and the cost of assorted local supplies.

Though Gould considered the cost a relative bargain, he said the uncertainties in estimating Ventura County permit fees is something that needs improvement.

"You never know exactly how much it's going to cost until all the departments have checked off your application," he said, alluding to the county's 18-page form.

Other location managers also complain about permit costs, the number of government OKs they must obtain and about townspeople attempting to capitalize on what they consider a deep-pocket production company.

Location manager Jeff Shepherd tells of being in Fillmore several years ago to shoot scenes for a sci-fi show and being expected to compensate every local merchant who believed their business was harmed by the disruption of filming.

"Everywhere I went, people had been informed ... that they should expect courtesy payments from the film company. It made it very difficult to get any work done," he said.

And location manager Murray Miller questioned the need to acquire a road encroachment permit during a shoot in Piru a few years ago. He thought hiring a California Highway Patrol officer at $65 an hour to oversee the parking of equipment trucks on a residential street seemed excessive. "It was a lot of money on a movie-of-the-week budget," Miller said.

And Gould said: "Policymakers have already figured out that film crews have a lot of money to spend. But what they need to know is that, like any goods or service you receive, you need to get something for what you spend."

The amount of money the county received for permission to film was less than $65,000 in 2000 and about $62,000 in 2001, according to Daniel T. Price, the county's film permit coordinator.

After adding in the cost of a $150-a-day business tax and traffic fees, the amount was under $250,000 in 2000 and again in 2001. Through Nov. 30, about $235,000 had been collected in 2002 by the county.

Bob Craft, location manager on the Vin Diesel film "Triple X," for which some action scenes were filmed in Piru, said he has arranged several Ventura County shoots over the years. Despite some problems, he gives the area generally good marks for cooperation.

"Ventura County is trying real hard," Craft said. "Los Angeles has been doing this for a long time and has gotten this down pretty smoothly."

And John Grant, who shot two "Fear Factor" episodes in Ventura County this past season, said the permit process is easier than a decade ago when he worked on "Friday the 13th: Jason Goes to Hell." He called that a "horrible experience."

"The process is a lot better than it was ... and it still has a bit of refining to be done," he said. "But let me underline that Dan Price makes it all a lot easier."

Huff said the film council hopes to hire an economist to quantify how much filming activities contribute to the local economy.

Armed with such information, the council would educate cities, business owners and residents about the economic benefits, Huff said.

One city that is already convinced is Simi Valley, where the Ray "Crash" Corrigan Movie Ranch was the scene of many westerns from the 1930s through '50s. Because Simi Valley is less than 30 miles from Hollywood, production companies don't have to provide crews or actors extra travel pay or arrange overnight accommodations.

Though "The Cat in the Hat" filmed just outside its borders, the city didn't end up empty-handed, said Leigh Nixon, chief executive of the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, which operates the city's film council.

"We know they ate in all the restaurants, because there was nothing else around where they were," Nixon said. Production workers also visited the Kmart on Madera Road, where some equipment trucks were parked, for last-minute supplies. And the crew patronized a local lumber yard and party supply store to rent chairs, she said.

"Cat in the Hat" location manager Andrew Ullman praised Ventura County's beauty, but said it takes "endurance" to navigate the permit requirements and regulations.

"It was not a bad experience, but it could have been made a lot easier."

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