A half-century ago, Walt Disney leased a horse ranch in Placerita Canyon to shoot episodes of “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” from the classic ABC series “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
Disney liked the property, with its rich variety of meadows, oak groves and mountains, so much that he began buying up land, eventually accumulating 890 acres. Over the decades, the storied Golden Oak Ranch, located in an unincorporated area of northeast Los Angeles County, has been used as backdrop for countless Disney TV shows and movies, including “Old Yeller” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”
Now Walt Disney Co. is moving closer to transforming part of the historic movie ranch into one of the largest high-tech production developments in the last decade – and the public will soon get its first say on the project.
Disney proposed plans in 2009 to build a multi-hundred-million-dollar production center for ABC Studios, complete with a dozen sound stages, offices, mill shops, writer bungalows and a commissary.
The Burbank-based entertainment conglomerate recently completed a key stage in the planning process – a draft environmental impact report – and will hold the first of several public hearings on the development and its impact on June 4. If approved by the regional planning commission and the county’s Board of Supervisors, Disney/ABC Studios at the Ranch could open by 2016.
Already, Disney has been promoting its plans to local residents, sending out brochures touting the economic benefits, saying the complex would create 3,152 construction jobs, in addition to 2,854 positions once completed, and contribute $533 million annually to the county’s economy.
“We believe it’s going to have a huge impact on our economy,’’ said Jonas Peterson, chief executive of the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corp. “We’ve seen overwhelming positive support from the community.”
Disney said the development would affect only 6% of the ranch, on two mostly barren parcels of land, preserving most of the property as natural backdrop. Plans also call for restoring a portion of Placerita Creek with natural vegetation, planting 1,600 oak trees to replace 158 that will be removed, and adding a nature trail to connect to existing trails in the Los Angeles National Forest.
“We saw we could create what hasn’t existed since the 1930s – a major studio facility adjacent to a large-scale movie ranch,’’ said Richard Ballering, vice president of production operations for ABC Studios. “It creates a better economic model that hopefully provides us greater opportunities to shoot in Southern California.”
The complex would span 58 acres and up to half a million square feet of production and office space. Few large sound stages have been built in Southern California in the last decade because so much production has flocked to such states as Louisiana, Georgia and New York, which is opening five new sound stages at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Still, demand for sound stage space remains tight in this region because of the growth of television programming, ABC’s Ballering said.
ABC Studios produces 14 to 18 TV shows at any given time in the L.A. area, including “Castle,” “Cougar Town” and “Private Practice." ABC has long since outgrown available space at its studio in Burbank and currently rents sound stages at various locations throughout the county to accommodate its shows.
Golden Oak Ranch, which gets its name from the mini gold rush that occurred nearby in the 1840s, already is a busy movie ranch that handles filming more than 300 days a year. Its versatile landscape makes it a popular shooting location for such TV shows as “CSI,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Criminal Minds,” as well as feature films that have included “Pearl Harbor” and “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” Another draw is that the ranch is within the so-called 30-mile zone from West Los Angeles. Productions that stay within the zone pay lower rates to crews.
New outdoor sets that have already been built on the ranch include a residential street with 13 steel-frame houses, each with different architectural styles; and a business district with brownstone buildings, shops and a courthouse. The buildings were designed with straight clear roof lines, making it easier to create “virtual set extensions” or digitally created backgrounds that can make the street appear as though it’s in the Rocky Mountains or in Boston.
The combination of the outdoor sets and ranch vistas with the proposed new sound stages will make it possible to shoot entire shows without having to leave the property. That can cut down the costs of shooting in residential neighborhoods and moving fleets of film trucks and trailers from one site to the next, Ballering said.
“By pairing sound stages with what the movie ranch has to offer," he said, “you’re creating efficiencies, which makes it more economical to produce television shows here.’’