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Take a ‘Sideways’ look at Santa Barbara County 

Tourists pour into local wine country after a boost from a hit new film

The buzz

My wife saw Paul Giamatti — or at least someone who looked like Paul Giamatti — driving in Buellton the other day.

Up until a month or two ago, such an event wouldn’t have registered on her radar. Heck, hardly anyone — locals included — would’ve understood the full scope of that sentence.

“Paul who?�

“Where’s Buellton again?�

“So what?�

Now, however, it seems the entire nation knows about actor Paul Giamatti and quaint little Buellton. That’s because “Sideways� — a feature film that meanders through Santa Barbara wine country — garnered rave reviews and seven Golden Globe nominations, including best picture (musical or comedy), after its limited Oct. 22 release. Those in the know are predicting an Oscar, at least.

click to enlarge DRINK WITH ME :  Santa Barbara County wine country takes the spotlight in “Sideways,� nominated for seven Golden Globe awards. (left to right: Sandra Oh as Stephanie, Thomas Haden Church as Jack, Virginia Madsen as Maya, and Paul Giamatti as Miles). - IMDB
  • IMDB
  • DRINK WITH ME : Santa Barbara County wine country takes the spotlight in “Sideways,â€? nominated for seven Golden Globe awards. (left to right: Sandra Oh as Stephanie, Thomas Haden Church as Jack, Virginia Madsen as Maya, and Paul Giamatti as Miles).

#Suddenly, wine lovers near and far were swearing their allegiance to Sanford and Kalyra, boasting treks to the Hitching Post II and Ostrich Land. And residents who’ve been here all along were sitting back, snug and proud to live in a life-sized movie set. Many critics have — to the point of speaking in cliches — lauded the landscape as a character in its own right.

When I saw the film (at the Palm in San Luis Obispo), the man sitting behind me stage-whispered every recognizable piece of scenery, from Foxen Winery to the Days Inn windmill in Solvang, eager to prove that he recognized it because he’d been there.

“That’s the River Course at Alisal!� he murmured, loud enough for the neighboring three rows to hear.

To be fair, all the people in the audience squirmed excitedly in their seats and leaned close together to smirk and nod as familiar wineries, roadside attractions, local vintner celebrities — even freeway signs — flickered to life.

Do New Yorkers get this excited whenever they see the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty in a feature film? Or are they jaded by how many times these famous landmarks have been used as backdrops on the Silver Screen?

The one exception to the theater-wide name- and scenery-dropping was when the movie’s two protagonists, Miles and Jack, rolled into a garish tasting room dubbed Frass Canyon.

“Frass Canyon? Where’s Frass Canyon? I don’t know Frass Canyon!�

Confused muttering gave way to sighs of recognition as the camera soon revealed the interior of Fess Parker Winery. The scene paints the place with a less-than-flattering brush, so the name was changed to protect the belittled.

I must confess that I, too, ultimately fell prey to the stalking urge to blurt out my connection to the film. One scene (presented as L.A., but clearly Santa Maria) takes Miles to a hamburger joint with which I’m very familiar, as it’s only a block or so down the street from the Santa Maria Sun office. While the camera pans across the booths at Orcutt Burgers, I glimpsed a Sun Best Of award on the wall in the background.

I couldn’t contain myself.

Neither can anyone else, apparently. “Sideways� has spawned online discussion-board conversations (take a peek at and covering topics ranging from which wines were included in the movie to the authenticity of the film’s winespeak to whether Los Olivos and Buellton are real places. East Coast residents in the know — from occasional jaunts to California, natch — assured their questioning friends and neighbors that the town of Solvang was real, and that it really was built to look like a Scandinavian village, complete with windmills.


The place

Martine White, county film commissioner with the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission (SBCVBFC), said that “Sideways� productions crews first contacted her in May 2003 to say they were interested in shooting in the area.

As film commissioner, her job is to market Santa Barbara County for film shoots and to act as a mediator and ombudsman for production companies that come to the area. She has at her disposal a 6,000-photo online location library, a production guide, and “anything you might need if you’re going to do a shoot here.�

“We have scouts who come out regularly for our rolling green hills,� White said.

White spent 11 years in the film industry, so she knows how the business works. If a production stays within a “30-mile zone� in L.A. it doesn’t have to pay mileage and extra benefits.

“Los Angeles will always be first,� White said. “Outside of that, you try to shoot things close to home.�

In the film industry’s eyes, Santa Barbara County is the best of both worlds. It’s far enough from L.A. to have the “fresh, green look,� but it’s close enough to be a cost-effective alternative.

“We’re very fortunate to be in that range that includes Santa Barbara through San Diego,� she said. “We’re always going to have a big advantage over Monterey and San Francisco. Even San Luis Obispo has a lot of the same things, but it’s farther ... .�

Local winding roads and undeveloped hillsides also appeal to commercial shoots, bringing in several dozen productions a year. White explained that now is the big filming season for car commercials since everything’s green.

“This time of year, we’ll probably get five or six a month — except when it’s raining,� she said. “We’re talking really nice ones like Lexus, Porsche, Mercedes. They just keep coming back every year.�

White also helps production companies with the permit process. While she can’t actually issue permits, she directs people to the proper agencies. She said her biggest call during the “Sideways� shoot involved a permit, though problems didn’t seem to be the norm.

White said that the commission had a good experience with the “Sideways� crew and nominated them for “best production company of the year� in 2004’s California on Location Awards — also known as the Colas — something like the Oscars for location managers in the state. The “Sideways� crew faced competition from the crews from “Van Helsing� and “Lost in Plainview.�

“Sideways� won.

“[Director] Alexander Payne has a reputation for working locally,� White said. “He gets to know the locals and works with them and sets up a network in advance.�

For “Sideways,� White explained, Payne wine-tasted his way around the county and got to know everyone before he started shooting.

“He left a very good taste in everybody’s mouth,� she said.


The attention

“We, for the last year, have been trying to raise the awareness of the [Conference & Visitors Bureau],� White said. “Most people don’t know what it is, but ‘Sideways’ has done it for us.�

Shannon Brooks, communications manager for the SBCVBFC, said that interest in “Sideways� has also brought a noticeable increase in attention to the county. She noted that the Hitching Post and Los Olivos Café have said that business was up by 20 percent, attributed to the movie.

click to enlarge ON LOCATION :  Director Alexander Payne and his crew befriended locals throughout the production. The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission nominated the “Sideways� team as the top production crew of the year in the 2004 California on Location Awards. - IMDB
  • IMDB
  • ON LOCATION : Director Alexander Payne and his crew befriended locals throughout the production. The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission nominated the “Sidewaysâ€? team as the top production crew of the year in the 2004 California on Location Awards.

#“I think it’s a pretty unique situation because of the way the wine — and the location itself — was part of the movie story,� she said. “Santa Barbara has been used in locations in big-name films recently, but you don’t get the name recognition in it because it’s posing as something else.� She cited “Hidalgo� and “Seabiscuit� as examples.

While no concrete financial figures are in yet, Brooks said that the bureau has a rudimentary way of determining success. It tracks media coverage by measuring national “media hits,� circulation, and advertising.

From October through most of December, the bureau generated 37 national media hits, reaching an audience of more than 5.6 million people, Brooks said. The bureau then translated those figures into a paid-advertising equivalent to discover what it would’ve spent to get the coverage it’s currently getting for free. The current total is at least $226,000.

Much of this coverage stems from a particular marketing idea: a map that pairs scenes from “Sideways� with Santa Barbara County attractions. Numbered wine bottles litter roads that wind around Santa Maria, Orcutt, Los Alamos, Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Santa Barbara. With map in hand, you can “taste your way through Santa Barbara Wine Country on the same path forged by Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) … .�

Since White was working with Fox long before the film was released, Brooks was clued into everything as it was happening. Taking a hint from the sort of interest the Lord of the Rings trilogy generated for New Zealand, she began working with Fox on the map. The first run of 10,000 maps, printed in September, has long since been snatched up, leading to a reprint of 30,000.

For the World Travel Market in London in early November, where “Sideways� screened as the event’s centerpiece, the California Travel and Tourism Commission reported that an 18-company delegation planned to host a VIP luncheon for about 150 U.K. and European tour operators and media there.

Currently on the international front, Brooks is working with Fox on “Sideways� promotion in Europe since the film opens in Germany and the U.K. later this month. She’s coordinating various sweepstakes that will bring the winners to Santa Barbara’s wine country.

Brooks expects the hype to last, at the very least, through the awards season, especially if the Oscars come into play. Realistically, she said, the attention could last for several years. There are already promotions in the works for when “Sideways� is released on DVD.

“We really didn’t have any idea how successful the film was going to be,� Brooks said. “Obviously, we hoped for it.�

Santa Maria Sun Editor Ryan Miller tries to stay within the 30-mile zone around his home as much as possible. He can be reached at


Globe trotters

“Sideways� garnered seven nominations for the 2004 Golden Globes: producer Michael London (best picture, musical or comedy), Paul Giamatti (best actor in a leading role, musical or comedy), Thomas Haden Church (best actor in a supporting role), Virginia Madsen (best actress in a supporting role), Alexander Payne (best director), Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (best screenplay), Rolfe Kent (best original score).

Watch the 62nd Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 16, 2005, telecast live on NBC from 8 to 11 p.m. The arrival special is from 7 to 8, and “backstage access� is from 11:30 to midnight.


SLO County’s ready for its closeup

By, Glen Starkey

Santa Barbara County may be in the current movie spotlight with “Sideways,� but SLO County has had more than its share of screen time. True, it was Northern Santa Barbara County that first hit the big screen way back in 1923 with Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish biblical epic “The Ten Commandments,� the set for which is still purportedly buried under the shifting sands of the Guadalupe Dunes. Those same dunes played host to several ’20s films including “The Son of the Sheik� (1926), “She’s a Sheik� (1927), and “The Outpost.�

click to enlarge BIG STAR POWER:  2002’s “Murder by Numbers,� starring Sandra Bullock, was the last major film production in SLO County. - IMDB
  • IMDB
  • BIG STAR POWER: 2002’s “Murder by Numbers,â€? starring Sandra Bullock, was the last major film production in SLO County.

#SLO County first found its way to the Silver Screen in 1926 when Roscoe “Fatty� Arbuckle brought his production company to Avila Beach to film “The Iron Mule,� a parody of John Ford’s 1924 hit “The Iron Horse.� By this time Arbuckle was using the alias William B. Goodrich, due to his career-ending 1921 scandal in which he was accused of raping and killing starlet Virginia Rappe.

San Luis Obispo — specifically H. J. Whitley’s ranch — was featured in 1926’s “The Cayenne Breezer,� a silent Western starring Hoot Gibson. The B. H. Smith ranch in Paradise Valley, east of Atascadero, was the location for 1928’s “Better Days.� In 1935, SLO Town saw a spectacular train wreck courtesy of 1935’s “Diamond Jim,� a film starring Cesar Romero about a working-class Irishman who rose to fortune with the

railroads. Pismo Beach got its shot at stardom when Clark Gable starred in “Strange Cargo� (1940), a “long and violent melodrama� about escaped convicts from Devil’s Island.

King Vidor’s 1952 film “Ruby Genry� (Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden) is the first listed SLO County screen credit on the SLO Film Commission web site. The list is a rather checkered inventory of B-movies, box office bombs … and the occasional winner.

click to enlarge DON’T WORRY, IT WAS ONLY A MOVIE :  1990’s “Arachnophobia,� starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman, was filmed in Cambria. - IMDB
  • IMDB
  • DON’T WORRY, IT WAS ONLY A MOVIE : 1990’s “Arachnophobia,â€? starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman, was filmed in Cambria.

#The B-movies begin with 1959’s “Monster of Piedras Blancas,� basically a “Creature from the Black Lagoon� ripoff. Other locals may remember 1979’s “California Dreaming,� which was filmed largely in Avila Beach and utilized a number of local surfers as extras. The film starred Dennis Christopher, whose breakout role that same year as Dave Stoller in “Breaking Away� helped establish him as a credible character actor (“Fade to Black,� “Chariots of Fire�).

In 1982, Cal Poly and parts of the city of SLO played backdrop to the bisexual love triangle film “Personal Best,� which starred Mariel Hemingway and Scott Glenn. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando� (1985) was filmed near Cambria, replete with explosions and firefights. Cambria played host to a horror comedy in 1990 when Jeff Daniels arrived in town to star in “Arachnophobia.�

Comedies like 1990’s “My Blue Heaven,� a film starring Steve Martin as a mobster in witness protection, and 1994’s “Little Giants,� about a team of misfit peewee footballers starring Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill, fell flat at the box office but had SLO County locals buzzing and playing extras in the films. “The Odd Couple II� (1998) reunited Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but also bombed in theaters.

That’s not to say SLO County is the kiss of death to the film industry. Parts of 1960’s “Spartacus� were filmed in San Simeon. Mel Gibson shot two fairly successful films in the area: 1994’s “Payback� and 2002’s “We Were Soldiers,� the latter of which was almost good enough to erase the memory of the Sandra Bullock box office debacle “Murder By Numbers,� which was also shot in 2002 — the last major film production in the county.

According to Associate Film Commissioner Baxter Boyington, no large productions are currently scheduled for SLO County, though he is gearing up for car commercial season, which tends to run from mid-January through March.

“Last year we were doing one or two car commercials a week,� he said. “We were recently scouted for several big films, but nothing came of it. ‘Seabiscuit’ was looking hard at our area, trying to find horse ranches. ‘The Ring 2’ was looking at us. I was out with the location scout on a rainy Halloween day looking for locations. We were also scouted by ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’�

Boyington serves as a liaison between the film industry and local authorities that issue film permits.

click to enlarge GOTTA HAVE THE SLO LIFE :  The director of “My Blue Heaven,� also released in 1990, chose SLO County as its filming location. - IMDB
  • IMDB
  • GOTTA HAVE THE SLO LIFE : The director of “My Blue Heaven,â€? also released in 1990, chose SLO County as its filming location.

#“We serve as the first point of contact for locations or permits, an arrangement local authorities like. The county or cities don’t want questions to go directly to them, so we facilitate arrangements of permits, and each city and the county have various fee structures.�

The SLO Film Commission also maintains a database of local film services, from makeup people to caterers to rental agencies.

“It’s my job to make sure films use local services,� said Boyington. “About two weeks ago, a Direct TV commercial used 14 kids from a local casting company, and these 14 kids now have SAG [Screen Actors Guild] cards.�


Point me to the wine

Wine enthusiasts who want to live the movie (or at least its most delicious parts) can find their way with a “Sideways� map, inspired by the Fox Searchlight Pictures feature film. Find a downloadable copy at, pick one up at the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission or the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce and Visitors & Convention Bureau, or call

1-800-676-1266 to request a copy.


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