Now Co-Starring ... the Inland Empire
Hollywood studios are increasingly drawn east, lured by the region's diverse geography.
By Susannah Rosenblatt, Times Staff Writer
As wildfires raged in the San Bernardino Mountains in the winter of 2003, the cast and crew of "The Aviator" kept cameras rolling on their set among the vintage hangars of San Bernardino International Airport.
Black smoke from the blaze hid the sun and darkened outdoor shots of a tarmac full of propeller planes that were meant to be Howard Hughes' grounded TWA fleet. The crew of the biopic finished its work amid the roar of rescue planes taking off and landing on the runway. The county turned one of the hangars into an evacuation center the next day.
Filming scenes for the critically acclaimed hit HBO TV show Entourage!!!!
Despite the real-life drama, the airport provided just the right look for the shot, and other locations in the Inland Empire are becoming just as appealing to Hollywood.
Filming in the Inland Empire has been steadily on the rise, with about 600 film, television or commercial projects shot over 1,911 production days in Riverside and San Bernardino counties last year, according to the Inland Empire Film Commission.
As the value of the dollar shrinks against Canadian currency and Hollywood looks closer to home for different locales, more and more location managers are scouting the Inland Empire. "It allows us to put economic energy that otherwise wouldn't go [to the region]," said Inland Empire-based economist John Husing. "That is extremely important to counties as big and diverse as Riverside and San Bernardino."
Some industry insiders credit that success to Sheri Davis, 10-year veteran of the Inland Empire Film Commission.
"My gosh, it's a huge economic engine," Davis said. "I just think the Inland Empire is deserving of its fair share."
She courts location managers by leading tours of the 27,000-square-mile region, which stretches from the alpine peaks of Big Bear Lake to vast expanses of the Mojave Desert and includes sand dunes, prairie lands, ghost towns and palm-lined oases.
Davis also works to streamline bureaucratic wrangling, helping to quickly obtain local government permits for film companies, and makes herself available 24 hours a day to assist demanding film crews, which can make odd requests.
When the cast and crew of the 2002 sci-fi flick "Impostor," filming in the tunnels and passageways of the abandoned Kaiser Mine in Desert Center in Riverside County, wanted fresh cappuccino, Davis dispatched a mobile coffee stand to the set "in the middle of nowhere," said location manager Marilyn Bitner. Actor Gary Sinise picked up the bill.
"If you can produce that kind of thing out in the middle of the desert, she makes you look good to your producer," Bitner said about Davis. "That kind of support is so invaluable you can't put a price on it."
The region's wildly varied locales are the main lure for film and TV crews, who will leave their Los Angeles studios and back lots in spite of the travel expenses.
"Aviator" location manager Robin Citrin took the film's crew to the San Bernardino airport to shoot car-sized models of Hughes' XF-11 plane taking off — the same plane Leonardo DiCaprio crashed so spectacularly in the film.
Thanks to major projects such as "The Aviator," film revenue in the area has more than doubled since 1998. In the last two years, movies including "Constantine," "Seabiscuit," "The Cat in the Hat" and the upcoming Disney feature "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and TV programs including NBC's "Fear Factor" and MTV's "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica" have been shot in the Inland Empire.
Last October, "Herbie's" crew built a full-size racing stadium complete with banners and bleachers in the El Mirage dry lake bed and dismantled it without leaving a trace, said Dan Taylor, production coordinator for the Inland Empire Film Commission.
A house in the lake bed was constructed for an episode of the NBC drama "ER" shot in September 2004, and the house was given to a local man.
"The Cat in the Hat" crew transformed the Pomona Antique Mall in 2003 to a Seussian paradise of brightly colored facades and fantastic planters and trees; store owners could opt to keep the outrageous new look, which some did, or revert to their original storefronts, Taylor said.
Despite the increasing interest, the Inland Empire isn't exactly giving Los Angeles County a run for its money: L.A. County's $35-billion entertainment industry saw 52,707 production days last year, nearly 28 times that in Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined. But, at 1,911 production days, filming in the Inland Empire far outpaced that in Orange County, which saw about 750 production days in the last fiscal year.
The state as a whole must compete with economic incentives available for filming in such states as New Mexico, Louisiana, New York and Illinois, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn proposed a plan to pay film production companies to shoot in the city.
But with some parts of Los Angeles County becoming increasingly expensive, restrictive for camera crews or simply overexposed, an hour's drive east can offer scouts something different, some in the industry say.
"The Inland Empire gives us an alternative to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles," said location manager John Grant of Toluca Lake, who scouted a 2002 episode of "Fear Factor" in San Bernardino County.
The reality show's contestants were to compete by driving onto a moving car carrier. After a California Department of Transportation project scuttled the original site — a portion of the 210 Freeway — the closed Norton Air Force Base provided the show the open stretches of deserted road and airspace for a helicopter filming the event.
Productions can range from the tiny — such as the $10,000 short drama "Chambre Avec Vue" shot in downtown Riverside for a Chapman University film graduate student's thesis project — to the immense. Earlier this month, the cast, 70 crew members and 125 extras of HBO's "Entourage" invaded Ontario International Airport to transform it into Salt Lake City International Airport during the Sundance Film Festival. The price tag for one half-hour episode? Roughly $1.5 million.
Besides fresh scenery, Inland Empire residents are another draw east, some in the film industry say. Residents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties are less accustomed — and generally more welcoming — to having cameramen tramping through their backyards, Grant and other location managers agree.
"The folks in the Inland Empire have not gotten the dollar signs in their eyes that people have in Los Angeles," Grant said, referring to the payments some Angelenos demand to allow filming on their property.
"People were very accommodating, very helpful" in the Inland Empire, said "Entourage" director and producer Julian Farino, his director's chair camped in the middle of a bustling set on the Ontario airport tarmac.
Occasionally, locals even get in on the act, winning small roles in projects such as American Film Institute student Andrea Janakas' short drama "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," which she shot in Big Bear this month.
"Everybody in the town has just been kind of jazzed about the project," said director and writer Janakas, 27.
Inland communities flexible enough to accommodate a disruptive film crew reap the benefits: Tiny 12,000-person Blythe netted more than $600,000 from the 2004 biker movie "Torque," starring Ice Cube.
But local benefits from the entertainment industry extend beyond the financial. Any exposure for the Inland Empire, even in a brief acknowledgment flashing by in a movie's credits, is a boon to the area and a source of civic pride, local leaders say.
Films and TV shows let the area show the world "a little bit about the beauty of our region and the amenities that we have here," said Riverside County Supervisor John F. Tavaglione.