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Films That Won the West : * The Santa Clarita Valley is a fitting place to hold a cinema festival because it remains a favorite place to premiere Westerns as well as shoot them.

March 18, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many of us the West was a movie first.

In childhood, Westerns were the films that led us to believe there were always wilder, more untamed places to be, new territories to light out for where a man was measured only by his character and the quickness of his draw.

Women, too, were strong in Westerns, whether they ran saloons and took no guff or scratched a hardscrabble living out of the soil and made the best darn biscuits west of the Pecos. And Westerns, unlike real life, had good parts for children, whether they were helping the ranch hands break a spirited horse or simply standing tall beside a pioneer parent. Children actually starred in some Westerns and got to say goodby to Shane.

Since 1911 when "Bronco Billy's Christmas Dinner" was shot there, the Santa Clarita Valley has been a favorite place to make Westerns. Every moviegoer in America knows the Valley's dusty rocks and photogenic ranchland. And in the future, Chris Shoemaker hopes, the Santa Clarita Valley will be a favorite place to premiere Westerns as well as shoot them.

Shoemaker is director of the 1994 Santa Clarita Valley International Film Festival, which opens tonight and continues through March 24. Slated to become an annual event if successful, the festival is a natural for Santa Clarita, says Shoemaker, a 34-year-old actor, director and producer.

"Film is very big business out here," he points out. At least half the film permits issued for Los Angeles County are for Santa Clarita shoots, he says. And to facilitate all this industry activity, there are now four studios in the area, seven location ranches and enough support services to fill a 64-page "Santa Clarita Valley Film Guide" listing everything from accounting firms to a company that will rustle up all the cattle you need for your movie or TV roundup. Shoemaker estimates that at least 6,000 of the valley's 140,000 people earn their living in the entertainment industry.

Westerns, family movies and cartoons are the focus of the film festival. These include full-length animated features such as a Polish film, "Jacek and Placek," about twin brothers who decide to steal the moon. There will be screenings daily at the Plaza 3 Cinemas in Santa Clarita, including several world premieres, with filmmakers and stars in attendance. There will also be a series of 12 seminars on industry-related topics. Shoemaker predicts that one of the best attended will be a session on how to become a Hollywood extra. As he points out, 3,000 prospects recently queued up in hopes of making a momentary appearance in a Patrick Swayze movie being shot locally. Another seminar will feature Jerry Mathers, "The Beav," as part of a panel on child stars, the pros and cons.

Awards will be given to the best films submitted for competition in Western, family and other categories. Special events include the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to animation legend Friz Freleng and an Academy Awards night gala at which participants will watch the ceremony on big screen TV and compete for door prizes for successfully predicting who will win various Oscars.

One of the things you won't see at the Santa Clarita Valley International Film Festival is "Bad Lieutenant." Unlike Cannes or Toronto, this fest is devoted entirely to films tame enough to earn a G or PG rating, says Shoemaker. That means no explicit sex, frontal nudity, excessive violence or obscene language. "Basically we didn't want the F word," says Shoemaker. "But we've permitted a hell and a damn here and there. We're not prudes!"

A five-person committee chose the films to be screened, and Shoemaker cites as the sort of movie that was rejected one in which a bullet seems to hit a victim in slow motion and the resulting blood spatters a nearby wall. Shoemaker says he didn't feel completely comfortable with a screening process that passed up some films for non-artistic reasons. But he makes no apologies for the festival's commitment to the conventionally wholesome.

More than 25% of the people in Santa Clarita are 16 or younger, he says, and many, many residents want more movies they can take the whole family to, including older members who feel uncomfortable with crude language and explicit sex. "We got tired of going to 'Jurassic Park' six times," he says. "We realized there wasn't a lot of variety or choices to take our children to."

According to program director Patte Dee, PG doesn't preclude gripping filmmaking.

Festival organizers were disappointed when a new Corbin Bernsen feature, "Savage Land," had to be dropped from the schedule at the last minute because it wasn't finished. But Dee is excited about "Seasons of the Heart," the story of a grief-stricken frontier mother directed by T.C. Christensen.

It will officially open the festival tonight at 8:30 p.m., and Dee predicts there won't be a dry eye in the house.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Santa Clarita Valley International Film Festival.

When: Today through Thursday.

Price: For screenings, $5 general, $3 seniors, students with ID and children 12 and younger. For seminars, $25 apiece. ($2 discount per ticket if you donate six empty Pepsi cans). For other events, including the Oscar gala, prices vary.

Call: (805) 257-7977 or (805) 257-7778.

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