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LIGHTS, CAMERA, SANTA CLARITA

On Location

Movie Rancher Offers Wide-Open Spaces Just Out of Reach of Urban Sprawl

October 17, 2000|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAUGUS — The movie business has its share of characters, and Rene Veluzat is one of them.

A stuntman and actor, Veluzat has doubled for Robert Wagner, Larry Storch and Don Knotts. He's danced onstage with Elvis. On top of that, he's a ringer for Wayne Newton.

But these days, he's mostly a movie ranch owner.

The son of one of the Santa Clarita Valley's early cattle ranchers, Veluzat owns more than 150 acres in the valley on which he operates two movie ranches--the Blue Cloud Ranch, which looks like a military camp, and a ranch he calls 50's Town. He's also a partner in a third movie ranch, the old Mexican Town Ranch, with his two brothers, Andre and Renaud.

The Blue Cloud Ranch is on two adjoining 50-acre tracts off Bouquet Canyon Road in Saugus. So far, although it doubled for Vietnam in a History Channel production called "Women at War," it hasn't had many big-league screen credits. The ranch also has been used to film a commercial for soccer's World Cup 2001.

The ranch has no sets, but with the fields and brush-covered hills, Veluzat hopes it will be attractive to producers looking to film war scenes. He also offers an array of troop carriers, five Huey helicopter mock-ups (they don't fly), camel netting and assorted Humvees.

"The properties had been abandoned for some 12 to 13 years," Veluzat said, "and people had begun to use them as a trash dump."

Once he took possession, for around $1 million, Veluzat said, it took another year and a half and about $50,000 to get it zoned for a movie ranch.

But the rapid pace of residential and commercial real estate development in the area suggests the Santa Clarita Valley's days of sprouting new movie ranches are numbered.

"It will probably be one of the last new movie ranches in this area," he said. "It's just too difficult."

Amber Skowronski, the film liaison for the Santa Clarita Valley, said the building boom in the four communities that make up the valley--Canyon Country, Saugus, Newhall and Valencia--has indeed put a bridle on the growth of the movie ranch business.

"With the acres movie ranches need, there's just not that much space left," she conceded.

There are 10 ranches altogether, most of which were built because they are within Hollywood's 30-mile zone. Once a film crew travels more than 30 miles outside Hollywood, costs can go up significantly as the production company has to pay for the cast and crew's meals, room and board and transportation.

Veluzat and his brothers started the Mexican Town Ranch in Saugus 25 years ago, first offering it as a 1950s town, then transforming it into a Mexican village in 1987 with a cantina, church, hacienda and other buildings. Among the movies shot there have been "Extreme Prejudice" starring Nick Nolte, "Don Juan DeMarco" starring Johnny Depp, and the volcano thriller, "Dante's Peak."

Seeing a limited demand for filming at Mexican Town, Veluzat went out on his own to create the 50's Town and Blue Cloud ranches.

"All the location scouts were saying to me 'When are you going to build something new?' " Veluzat said. "I wanted to expand and my brothers didn't."

His expansion comes at a difficult time though. The Santa Clarita Valley, like all of Southern California, is feeling the crunch of less filming being done locally, especially over the last two years. The decrease is due in part to more productions now being filmed in Canada, where filmmakers can take advantage of an array of government tax incentives to lower their production costs, industry experts say, and in part to the ongoing strike by the Screen Actors Guild.

In Santa Clarita, for example, 359 film permits were issued in 1998, amounting to 1,213 days of filming that year. In 1999, the number of permits dropped to 226, with only 562 days of filming.

"We have lost a lot of filming because of runaway production," Skowronski said, "but the area and its residents are very film-friendly and hopefully things are starting to turn around."

While she has no figures yet for 2000, she said more than 300 film permits had been issued through September, surpassing last year's mark.

*

Veluzat said that since he's the sole owner of the Blue Cloud and 50's Town ranches, he has more flexibility to cut deals with cost-conscious producers.

For instance, instead of charging the going rate for military helicopters--about $1,500 an hour--Veluzat said he gives them the option of renting those without motors as set dressings for $1,500 a day.

In the same vein, troop carriers without motors can be rented for $100 a day, compared with $400 a day for those with engines.

"It's all about the bottom line with these folks," he said. "And I understand that."

Still, he conceded he's lost 30% of his business over the last two years, mostly to runaway production. "And I haven't lost as much as others because I've been flexible," he said.

He also rents out the ranches for magazine shoots and student films and has been known to sharply reduce his fees for student films in exchange for a film credit.

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