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California and the West

Owens Valley Town Tries to Reclaim Its Role as a Top Movie-Making Location

Business: Economically stressed Lone Pine, scene of many westerns, gets ready for its close-up by forming a film commission.


LONE PINE, Calif. — Trying to recapture its glory days as a premier shooting venue for Hollywood films, this desolate Owens Valley town is launching a drive to persuade a new generation of filmmakers and location scouts to head its way.

With a fledgling film commission and a recent marketing trip to a locations expo in Los Angeles, the community hopes to boost its profile and reap income for the economically depressed area. The campaign dovetails with a $45-million statewide program, started in January, that offers filmmakers reimbursements to keep production in California.

"We just want to sell what we've got to sell," said Diane Taylor, who heads the new Inyo County Film Commission, based in tiny Lone Pine. "We've got the locations, and we need the business."

For 80 years, the rugged, boulder-strewn Alabama Hills behind the town served as the backdrop for more than 400 television shows and movies, including this year's Oscar winner "Gladiator."

But the area's heyday dates to the '30s, '40s and early '50s, when movies ranging from Hopalong Cassidy epics to 1939's "Gunga Din" were shot here. Back then, Lone Pine, 230 miles north of Los Angeles, was perhaps the most popular of Hollywood's "distant" movie locations, said Dave Holland, a local historian and film buff who has written a book on the subject.

Most of the movies were westerns. But the rock formations and craggy hills also served in various films as imaginary parts of Texas, Arizona, India, Peru and Tibet. They were the Pyrenees once, too, in the final scene from "Around the World in 80 Days."

"Nobody ever thought those days would end," Holland said ruefully.

But end they did, when fan and filmmaker interest in westerns dropped sharply and rising production costs started forcing crews to stay closer to home. Lone Pine, which had relied heavily on its film income, slipped into decline.

In the last decade, with attention sparked in part by the establishment of the annual Lone Pine Film Festival, a few feature-length films have been shot here, including parts of 1994's "Maverick." More often, though, the area has served as a location for commercials, music videos and the occasional television episode, Holland and others said.

Lone Pine and Inyo County--which boast starkly dramatic scenery--want more.

"We have no manufacturing and very little commercial base," Taylor said. "But we've got Mt. Whitney, Death Valley and the Alabama Hills. We want to formalize our film experience and grab a bigger piece of the pie."

The business is desperately needed in vast, sparsely populated Inyo County, where an estimated 16% of the population lives below the poverty line and many others hover just above it. Lone Pine, one of a string of small towns set like widely spaced beads along the valley between the Sierra and the Inyo Mountains, gets by on public sector jobs and tourism but craves more movie work, Taylor said.

The film commission was established last year and has just produced its first resource guide, a 70-page booklet complete with maps, rainfall reports and advice on everything from restaurants to livestock rentals.

Last month, the commission headed to Los Angeles to promote the area at an annual movie locations trade show. Competing with 300 other film commissions from more than 30 countries and many states, the modestly financed Inyo County group displayed photographs showing the area's richly diverse landscape--from 14,000-foot Mt. Whitney to Death Valley's Badwater, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere.

"We didn't have the giveaways and free weekends that some of the others had, but we think we did pretty well for our first attempt," Taylor said.

Organizers agreed.

"They're an energetic group," said Maggie Christie, executive producer of the annual Locations Global Expo. "And they had a very good-looking exhibit."

Christie said the reason for any town's or group's interest in promoting itself is fairly clear: Even a few weeks of filming can bring mean tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business.

"It can affect practically everyone: dry cleaners, motels, restaurants. People come into town and need cars, hairdressers, security guards," she said. "Everyone in town can get into the act."

Taylor said Inyo County cannot afford to offer tax rebates or other incentives to production companies. But those companies can benefit from Film California First, the California Film Commission's new three-year program to combat a trend toward "runaway production"--movies made out of state.

The program offers companies reimbursements for costs incurred when filming on public land, including permits and the work of public employees such as fire marshals and highway patrol officers.

"We hope that will help us too," Taylor said.

Even as it looks to the future, though, Lone Pine is hoping to capitalize more on its movie past.

Business leaders and local movie fans are trying to find funding and land to open a formal film history museum here, said Holland, who helped start the film festival in 1990.

"Tourism is really what brings people into this little town," he said. "And for that, Lone Pine's past is quite literally Lone Pine's future."

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