VENTURA — Drive out past the grasshopper wells, past the lemon orchards, up toward Ojai, and you enter another world: Santa Ventura Studios.
There, tucked away in the old Mills School, actors, directors and producers scurry from one set to another. Makeup artists paint faces and editors sit before giant TV screens, cutting and clipping.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Ventura, wedged between the warehouses on Callens Road, 30-year-old Simon Balderas pieces together animation and music on high-tech computers at Full Motion Studios. His studio will release its first 26-episode series--"River Tales"--this spring, in English and Spanish.
Reflecting an overall boom in the entertainment business, more TV shows, movies and commercials than ever before are being filmed in Ventura.
"It used to be anything over the hill, you might as well be in Kansas," said Balderas, referring to the Conejo Grade south of Camarillo. "But believe it or not, there's a lot more work coming this way."
City figures bear that out.
In 1995, the city listed just eight film days. In 1996 that jumped to 37. And this year there have been 63.
Those figures do not include taping of ongoing TV series, such as "High Tide"--a "Baywatch" knockoff about two surfing detective brothers--and, most recently, "Mike Hammer: Private Eye" starring gumshoe Stacy Keach.
In an attempt to make it easier for film crews to work here and encourage more investment by the entertainment industry, the city has labored over the past two years to streamline the film permitting process to make the city more "film friendly."
Ventura assists in finding shooting locations and catering services, and charges $150 a day, or $250 an episode--comparable to other communities in Ventura County.
Earlier this month, a film permit ordinance was introduced before the Ventura City Council that would guarantee a two-day turnaround time for a film permit, unless the shoot involved stunts or pyrotechnics. The ordinance will come before the council for a second reading in January.
That measure would put the city on par with Oxnard, Santa Paula and Moorpark, which already have similar ordinances. Only Thousand Oaks has a faster turnaround time: 24 hours.
"Ventura has seen steady growth in filming activity over the past couple of years," said city Community Services Manager Debbie Solomon. "We see the ordinance as being a critical foundation for the future of our filming activity."
From the way things are going, it looks like the effort will pay off handsomely.
At $360 billion, film and taped entertainment are America's second-largest net export, beaten only by the aerospace industry.
According to Kayla Thames of the California Film Commission, Los Angeles experienced a 33% increase in production days between 1995 and 1996. Filming in San Bernardino County nearly doubled--going from $34 million to $60 million. And Orange County went from $5.3 million in 1996 to $8.5 million in 1997.
Ventura too is in a position to capitalize on that growth. But Thames said she has no figures for the city, because there is no local film commission.
'With no film commission, it makes it hard to track production, and to keep track of revenues and jobs lost," Thames said.
Despite the lack of a uniform approach, Ventura's beaches, mountains and "look" attracted Jeff Franklin and his partner to set up a production studio in Ventura.
Initially they came from San Diego in search of beaches to shoot the remainder of "High Tide." After a season filming in the area they were hooked.
"Look at most shows. They are shot in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco," Franklin said. "You grow to know the locations. We found in Ventura locations that had not been seen."
Last spring they bought the old Mills School in western Ventura. They began filming there in July.
At this point, Santa Ventura Studios, in an unincorporated area just north of the city line, appears to be the only full production studio in the county, said Frank Ugolini, who gives out film permits for the county.
"It's like Hollywood, right here in Ventura," Solomon said. "They've got a full wardrobe, full sets, props--everything!"
Franklin has already moved his base from Santa Monica, although he will retain an office there for casting.
As for Santa Ventura Studios, Franklin has ambitious plans.
The eight-acre facility has 50,000 square feet of usable studio space and is expanding to accommodate future television series. The owners just bought 22 acres to the north of the studio and plan to begin building a sound stage early next year. Franklin refused to divulge how much he has invested in the studio so far.
But he did say he was able to build the studio there largely because of the millions of dollars that Western Instruments had already poured into wiring the building with the most up-to-date technology. Western Instruments used the school to do research for the Navy, Franklin said.
"We couldn't have done this with today's dollars," Franklin said.