A sprawling Santa Clarita Valley landscape that Walt Disney selected decades ago to be the backdrop for his movies and television shows will be transformed into one of the largest new studio developments in more than a decade under a plan approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Disney's Golden Oak Ranch will include more than 500,000 square feet of studio space, multiple sound stages, writers' bungalows, a commissary and other developments spread over 58 acres of oak-studded land in Placerita Canyon.
The vote marks the culmination of a four-year effort by Disney/ABC Studios to build a high-tech production center in the historic ranch where such classics as "Old Yeller" and the more recent "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" were filmed.
The development is also the latest sign that north Los Angeles County continues to be an attractive site for the entertainment industry.
The Golden Oak site is among nearly a dozen ranches in the Santa Clarita area that have become increasingly popular for filming in recent years because their wide-open spaces and varied terrain can be used as stand-ins for Afghanistan or the Old West. The Santa Clarita Valley, often dubbed Hollywood North, promotes itself as a low-cost, film friendly destination that saw record production levels in the last fiscal year.
County supervisors hailed the Disney/ABC studio project, saying it would create $533 million in annual economic activity at time when the region continues to battle runaway film and TV production.
"Many of the film production companies are now going out of state," Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said before the 4-0 vote. "This is an opportunity to increase film production in Los Angeles County."
California has lost more than 36,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in wages since 1997 because of lost film and television production, according to a 2010 Milken Institute Report. Business leaders urged the county to support the project and others like it in hopes of stemming that trend.
Los Angeles' entertainment sector — which employs about 160,000 people — faces an "existential threat" from other states "actively pursuing, enticing and poaching these productions out of our own back yard," wrote Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Chief Executive Bill Allen in a letter to the county supporting the project.
California Film Commission Executive Director Amy Lemisch said the new development does not necessarily signal a reversal of the trend of productions leaving California, but it does show that Disney in particular is invested in remaining.
"I think they are committed to California, Southern California, and they need to be prepared for any outcome," she said. "Certainly we're pleased that a big company wants to make this commitment" to building and modernizing its infrastructure.
The greater challenge facing the industry is tax credits offered by other states and countries. Though L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has made reducing runaway production a priority of his administration, tax incentives are largely decided by lawmakers in Sacramento, where it hasn't been as great a priority.
The California tax credit program enacted in 2009 gives up to $100 million a year in tax breaks to eligible film and television productions through 2017, but that is less than what is offered by some other states. The current credit is 20% to 25%, depending on the project and is available to movies and cable television shows, but not to network shows unless they relocate to California from out of state.
Meanwhile, the demand for the credits far exceeds the supply. This year, 380 projects applied and about 30 were approved for funding. The recipients are chosen by lottery.
ABC has its own reasons for expanding in northwestern Los Angeles County. The company produces 14 to 18 television shows at any given time in the L.A. area, including "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "Private Practice," and has long since outgrown available space at its studio in Burbank. The studio rents soundstages at various locations in the county to accommodate its shows.
But demand for soundstage space in the area remains high because of the growth of television programming, new media productions financed by Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, and commercial shoots. Average occupancy for soundstages in the county is 70% to 90%, said Carl Muhlstein, managing director for Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate service provider.
Having many of ABC's television productions at one location would create efficiencies for the studio.
The Golden Oak site also is attractive as a film location because it falls within the so-called 30-mile zone from West Los Angeles. Under union rules, productions located outside the zone have to pay more to crews for travel time.
Disney/ABC still need approvals from state and federal regulators, but Tuesday's public hearing and county approval were viewed as a critical milestone. The company has not released the cost of the project and will create a construction timeline once it receives the remaining approvals.
A handful of environmentalists testified against the project, questioning how the development would affect air and water quality, the ranch's wildlife habitat and the need to cut down 158 oak trees to make way for the development. Disney/ABC has committed to planting 1,600 new saplings grown from acorns found on site.
"Placerita Canyon is a lovely area, a significant wildlife environment and a wildlife corridor. The greatest challenge that we face locally, nationally, statewide and globally is loss of biological diversity," said David Lutness. "We should do everything that we can to encourage and maintain our biological diversity."
The studio heavily courted residents and community leaders, sending glossy brochures touting the projected economic benefits of the project. More than 100 supporters attended the hearing, with political and business leaders, nearby residents and others testifying in support of the project.
Jim McClafferty, supervising location manager for TV's "NCIS" and a Santa Clarita Valley resident who has worked at the ranch at various points over the last three decades, said the project was vital.
"What can California do to protect its own homegrown industry? We can support this project," he said, noting that entertainment is a $40-billion industry vital to the state's economic prosperity and tourism. "If we're going to grow the California entertainment industry, then we must be competitive. Otherwise productions will increasingly choose to base their film shoots in other states and other countries."