CAMARILLO — The 20th Century Fox film crew said it chose the Camarillo Ranch House because it looks as if it could be a rural setting almost anywhere in the United States--from Bakersfield to Nebraska.
"The trick is to keep away from the palm trees," said Ricci Rukavina, assistant location manager for the NBC drama series "The Pretender."
Without Southern California's all-telling fronds in the frame, you really can't tell where you are, Rukavina said--"and that's the secret."
The city's chameleon-like qualities recently attracted about 100 crew members of the Saturday night show to the grounds of the Victorian ranch house built in 1892 by city founder Adolfo Camarillo.
And the growing popularity of Camarillo as a backdrop for movies, television shows and commercials is the reason for a meeting today between city leaders and Chamber of Commerce officials to devise ways to increase the city's visibility in the industry. Initial ideas include providing information on the city's World Wide Web site and sending packets of information about filming requirements to location managers.
Camarillo joins other cities courting Hollywood, which brings not only a measure of fame but money with each filming visit.
"The whole purpose of this is to stimulate jobs in Ventura County," said Leland Hammerschmitt, president of the county's film commission.
More film production can only bring more jobs and economic stability to the county, Hammerschmitt said.
"Once you start building a critical mass, then people will have local jobs in a fairly nonpolluting industry that doesn't take up farm space. And that's a critical economic thrust," said Hammerschmitt, an Ojai resident who has worked as an assistant director or producer for seven films and more than 1,400 commercials.
But rather than compete with one another, said Carol Nordahl, executive director of the Camarillo chamber, local cities need to coordinate a countywide marketing strategy so there is no duplication of effort.
"It's not the kind of thing you compete for, because each project is unique," Nordahl said. "The film companies look for a particular kind of location for each project. . . . It's more of letting the film industry know what sites and resources are available."
Hammerschmitt said Ventura County is beginning to reflect the boom in the film and taped-entertainment industry, which at $360 billion accounted for the nation's second-highest net export total last year, behind aerospace shipments.
According to the California Film Commission, Los Angeles County experienced a 33% increase in production days between 1995 and 1996. The value of filming in San Bernardino County nearly doubled--from $34 million to $60 million--over the same period. And Orange County grew from $5.3 million in 1996 to $8.5 million in 1997.
No such figures are available for Ventura County, because its film commission has yet to receive an official state sanction, which is expected by this summer.
The city of Ventura, site of two television production studios, had 63 film days last year, compared with 37 the year before. By comparison, Camarillo was used as a location 15 days in 1997.
Rukavina of "The Pretender" suggests that Camarillo will probably receive more attention from production companies looking for a convenient and flexible shooting location.
"It's always nice to film in places like this because there's a calmness that affects the crew," Rukavina said. "It's good for them to be outdoors and away from everything else. You can feel the difference."
In the episode filmed in Camarillo, the show's main character, Jarod Russell, played by actor Michael T. Weiss, was attending a high school reunion in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, part of the crew was on the other side of the Camarillo Ranch House filming inserts to be used later as part of unfinished episodes set in Bakersfield.
Rukavina said such versatility lured him to the Camarillo Ranch House. It also has him considering future shoots at other sites in the city, including the Camarillo Airport, the former Camarillo State Hospital, Camarillo Regional Park and the city's Old Town neighborhood.
But at least one Camarillo official said he is skeptical whether the arrival of more Hollywood crews would benefit the city.
"The city gets the license fee and that's it--there's no real benefits to the residents of the city," said Planning Director Tony Boden, who approves film permit requests.
"I see it more as maintaining an employment base in California, but there might be some spinoff to the local jurisdictions," Boden said. "What makes the industry so viable here is that there's so many diverse locations they can go to in a relatively short period of time."
There is no harm in publicizing Camarillo's sites, but there should not be so much filming that it disrupts local businesses, Boden said, citing Santa Paula's experience last year with the movie remake of "Leave It to Beaver," which closed off the downtown area for several weeks.