Development of the Walt Disney Company’s Golden Oak Ranch studio complex in Placerita Canyon was given the green light by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors nearly four years ago. The City of Santa Clarita was supportive, the community was supportive, but since plans were approved in August, 2013 ground has yet to be broken. After repeated attempts to find out why, Disney did not return calls to provide an answer.
The hold-up has mystified residents and community leaders who were wooed by an aggressive marketing barrage that extolled the virtues of having a large media complex in their backyard. It was not a hard sell. Those living in the area immediately surrounding Placerita Canyon, where Golden Oak Ranch is located, appeared to be comfortable with the idea of a years-long construction project near their homes.
While several environmental groups had expressed apprehension over the project’s impact on air and water quality, as well as its effect on plants and wildlife, Disney came up with a solution to allay their concerns. Preservation of the integrity and biodiversity of the property would be protected by the planting of over 1,600 saplings to replace 158 trees, including 16 heritage oaks that stood to be removed during development. That solution seemed good enough for former County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and the rest of the Board of Supervisors. The project was unanimously approved by a vote of 4-0.
Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who had previously served as Mr. Antonovich’s chief deputy, shares the support expressed by the board four years ago. Barger’s communications director, Tony Bell, tells the Gazette that the supervisor visited the filming location last week in the wake of the Placerita Canyon fire that destroyed three production set buildings at Golden Oak Ranch.
“All I can tell you is the supervisor’s happy about the project, the County’s happy, the City of Santa Clarita is happy. You’d have to ask Disney about the hold-ups,” said Bell. “These things take time.”
Enthusiasm for the Golden Oak Ranch project was also expressed by state officials. Runaway production has cost the California economy hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. Generous tax incentives offered by states including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and Texas have long had a negative impact by drawing away film and television production. Sacramento attempted to stanch the exodus by tripling the amount of tax incentives available to qualifying productions which, in 2015, totaled $330 million in annual rebates. Those efforts have paid off.
Twelve qualifying television series have relocated to California in the last year. One of those shows is HBO’s “Ballers,” starring Dwayne Johnson, which moved from Miami and now calls Santa Clarita home. The show will have its third season premiere later this month. In addition to “Ballers,” other programs, including “NCIS” and the “Santa Clarita Diet,” continue to call the city home and have had a significant impact on the local economy.
Evan Thomason, Economic Development Associate for the City’s Film Office, says there were over 1,300 shoot days last year, generating nearly $31 million in revenues. Much of that money is spent with businesses in the community, in addition to the dollars going directly toward production-related costs.
“Even though Golden Oak Ranch is part of the County and not the City of Santa Clarita, there’d be spillover for location shooting and much of that would likely be near the studio. That would be a benefit all around.” Thomason says.
Golden Oak Ranch was slated to occupy 58 acres of the Disney Ranch and be home to over a half-million square feet of studio space, sound stages, offices, a commissary, and other production and support buildings. The presence of the complex was expected to be a boon to the local economy, bringing in over 3,152 construction jobs and, ultimately, employing 2,854 more people in full-and-part-time positions based on the company’s projections.
The studio complex would also have helped alleviate another major hurdle for producers looking to remain in the state: lack of sufficient studio space. Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission, tells the Gazette that one of the biggest challenges for producers is finding soundstages, due to high demand.
“The tax incentive plan has been extremely successful in keeping production here and bringing production back. That’s undoubtedly contributing to the lack of space,” she said.
In the past, approximately 70 percent of stages in the Los Angeles area were in active use by production companies. By some estimates, occupancy is currently hovering around 90 percent. The scarcity of production space has been felt most in the television industry.
Historically, successful television programs usually had consisted of 26 annual episodes, but in recent years orders are oftentimes limited to 13 episodes at a time. One result of this is that companies are now signing long-term leases for soundstages even when programs are on hiatus, allowing producers to retain guaranteed access on an ongoing basis should orders for additional episodes be made. In many instances, stages remain dark as much as they are open and in use, although many studio owners attempt to squeeze in other productions during downtime.
The advent of increased original programming from emerging platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu has further contributed to the lack of available space. This doesn’t include additional demand for soundstages by producers of television commercials.
Golden Oak Ranch would not only have provided a tremendous financial boost, it would have opened more opportunities for physical production. Though owned by Disney, rental of the facilities would be an option for any production in search of soundstages, back lots, or close access to locations, be it film, television, or commercials.
Santa Clarita has long been attractive to filmmakers as it falls within the “30-Mile Zone” or “studio zone” for filming in Los Angeles. By staying within this production zone, television shows and film productions do not need to pay travel time and mileage to members of the entertainment unions. It’s one of the reasons there hasn’t been expansion into Riverside or San Bernardino Counties, despite those counties having wide swaths of open space suitable for the construction of studio facilities.
“I couldn’t tell you why they haven’t started construction,” says the Film Office’s Thomason. “We’d really like to see it happen. There’s definitely a need.”
In the meantime, the promised “$533 million in annual economic activity throughout Los Angeles County,” Disney continues to tout on its “Studios at the Ranch” website is still in question. And the “Mouse that Roared” is strangely silent.