Scene from a Cannon commercial that was shot on a train at Fillmore &… (Fillmore & Western Railway )
At an amphitheater in a Ventura County park surrounded by rolling hills and sandstone cliffs, about 150 people recently gathered to watch an outdoor screening of a film montage called “Oak Park in the Movies.”
The film was a compilation of clips from classic movies shot in the 45-year old community of Oak Park at a former movie ranch in southeast Ventura County that served as a backdrop for such vintage films as “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “The Red Pony” (1949) based on the John Steinbeck novels.
Despite its rich cinematic history, Ventura County has rarely sought the limelight -- until now. Long accustomed to operating under the shadow of its more famous neighbor, Los Angeles, Ventura County and its 10 cities are attempting to elevate their Hollywood profile.
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The Oak Park screening on a recent Sunday evening, the first of several to highlight historic movie locations, marks the latest effort by industry officials to market the county as a film-friendly location and promote Ventura's heritage as a production location.
During the event, 97-year-old actor and producer Norman Lloyd shared stories about his experience filming “The Red Pony” and “A Walk in the Sun” in Oak Park. The evening was organized by the authors of a new book entitled "Images of America: Oak Park," and hosted by Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks who stressed the need to “keep the cameras rolling in Ventura County.’”
To that end, the county recently launched an online film industry database, venturacountyfilm411.org., to serve as a resource for production companies and industry professionals.
The database’s more than 350 categories lists everything from camera rental shops and hotels to catering firms and script revision services. Ventura County's film industry employs an estimated 3,200 workers.
“The purpose is to let people say 'I’m here, and this is what I do,’” said Bill Bartels, consultant to the Economic Development Collaborative – Ventura County, a private nonprofit organization that promotes economic development in the region and created the online directory. “We want to make it easier for people who are coming here to film.”
In fact, filmmakers have been coming to Ventura since the 1920s. Many historians believe star Rudolph Valentino made his first blockbuster, “The Sheik,” in Oxnard. Ventura County was the site of numerous westerns, including the 1955 television series “Gunsmoke.” The NBC series “Little House on the Prairie” filmed at the Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Valley for nearly a decade. And, the long-running TV western series “Bonanza” also shot throughout the county.
More recent movies filmed in the area included “Little Miss Sunshine” (Ventura), “We Bought a Zoo” (Thousand Oaks) and “Water for Elephants” (Fillmore). TV shows that have enlisted the location include “Glee,” which recently filmed its season finale at the train station in Santa Paula.
Still, film activity in Ventura County is a fraction of what Los Angeles County sees. Ventura County issued 339 permits in 2011, down from 371 in 2010--less than the number of permits FilmL.A. Inc. typically handles in single month.
Although it was created a decade ago, the Ventura County Film Commission only recently took a proactive role in promoting the local industry. Some of county’s cities had an ambivalent view of film crews in their neighborhoods, but the recession has triggered a rethinking of the business as an important job creator.
As a result, the Film Commission is becoming more visable, appearing for the first time this year at the annual L.A. trade show hosted by the Assn. of Film Commissioners International.
“We [had] served as the film commission but we were really only limited to taking phone calls from location specialists and helping them navigate permitting as opposed to promoting the film industry,’’ said Ventura County Film Commissioner Bruce Stenslie, who is also president of the EDC. “Now, we’re moving into more of a full-service film commission role.”
Film industry officials are discussing ways to better coordinate the permitting process among the various cities. Moorpark, Ventura and Thousand Oaks also are taking steps to make it easier to shoot in their communities. Another idea is to develop a “Ventura County movie map” showing historic movie locations to promote tourism.
Ventura County’s efforts come at time when Southern California is struggling to keep film crews from shooting in other locales. But while Ventura County can’t offer tax breaks to filmmakers, it has other attractive qualities, including its proximity to Hollywood, strong locale crews and varied geography, Stenslie said.
“We think the convenience of staying in Southern California and the diversity of our locations are our strengths.’’
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