"Filmmaking Great for Tourism:
Movie Industry Has Used Valley as a Set as Far Back as 1915"

by Gary Sherwin, The Desert Sun (Palm Springs), 17 December 2004

In a crowded marketplace full of movies about hidden treasures and sponges with square pants, the film to see this holiday season, in my humble opinion, is "Sideways."

It is poignant, intelligent, at times hysterically funny and was nominated for seven Golden Globes Awards earlier this week.

It also happens to be perhaps one of the biggest tourism promotion pictures to come out in decades.

Films and tourism have been important partners for decades in the Palm Springs Desert Resorts starting back in 1915 with "Lone Star Rush" up to "Alpha Dogs" this year.

In many ways, "Sideways" is the very model of a film as tourism billboard in much the same way "Palm Springs Weekend" defined the valley as a place for college kids to cavort and have fun.

In case you haven't heard the buzz, "Sideways," which was also the winner of both the Los Angeles and New York film critic associations' best picture award, is based on the book by Rex Pickett and concerns two middle-aged men. One is a struggling writer, and the other a slightly famous actor who embark on a bachelor's getaway weekend in the Santa Barbara wine country.

Once there, they golf, relax in a Jacuzzi, taste a lot of wine and visit icons such as the Danish community of Solvang and the pea soup capital of the world, Buellton.

The writer (played by Paul Giamatti) is angst-driven by his failure to get his book published and his actor buddy (Thomas Haden Church), who, days away from getting married to a rich family, joyfully abandons himself to the pleasures of women.

All of it is set against the beautiful back roads of the Santa Ynez Valley countryside, which is the real star of the film, although I'm certainly no Ebert or Roeper.

The movie has proven to be a bonanza for the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau, which hoped they would have a hit on their hands when they produced "Sideways— The Map," a guide to the film's locations before the picture was even released.

Within weeks of the premiere, visitors eager to see the diners, hotels and wineries used in the film snapped up all 10,000 copies of the guide and it is now in its second printing.

A local tour company has even created a now popular "Sideways" tour and another firm has a "snob-free" winery tour that has movie locations as well.

Shannon Brooks, communications manager for the Santa Barbara CVB, said they haven't yet received specific numbers on the impact of the movie but said that business at restaurants and hotels is up as well as inquiries from travel media who are writing feature stories on the area.

The movie also showcased a little appreciated aspect of the community, which is their beloved pinot noir wines, a product usually overshadowed by the more famous Napa Valley to the north.

For wine lovers, the movie is torch song, waxing on about the joys and true meaning of enjoying the grape with the wineries playing a major part. The fact that the local wines are so favorably depicted in the movie has made tourism officials deliriously happy after years of trying to get the word out about the quality of their product.

Movie tourism is certainly not a new concept. The Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills still successfully plays off the fact that they were used for "Pretty Woman," even though that was released 15 years ago.

Locally, the Palm Springs Riviera Resort proudly touts its ties to the wonderfully campy classic "Palm Springs Weekend," shot over 40 years ago.

Dozens of films have been shot in the Palm Springs Desert Resorts dating back to silent flicks with Rudolph Valentino and "Lost Horizon" in Tahquitz Canyon by director and part-time La Quinta resident Frank Capra in 1937.

A few years ago, I was invited to be on the set of "Ocean's Eleven" which was filming at a home in La Palmas section of Palm Springs and where I got to watch a scene by the pool between Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Elliott Gould.

It was heady stuff. But, alas, the home in the movie was not Palm Springs but was substituting for a spread in Las Vegas, so we didn't achieve any immortality.

In 1971, Sean Connery as James Bond came to town and filmed "Diamonds Are Forever" at the Elrod / Lautner home in Southridge. But it too was supposed to be Las Vegas.

I suppose we look more like Las Vegas than Las Vegas to movie scouts.

In the early '90s, we came close to television fame with "P.S. I Luv U," a CBS network detective show set in the city starring Connie Sellecca and featuring occasional appearances by then-Mayor Sonny Bono. But it was a rating bust and was quickly canceled after 13 episodes.

While we aren't necessarily well-known as a movie location, at least not yet, our appeal as a mecca for the famous is secure, so much so that the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority will be publishing its first ever Celebrity Guide early next year.

Truth be told, we should be satisfied that we are the home and vacation playground of the stars. Maybe our fame rests on them enjoying themselves out here instead of working on another project.

©2004 The Desert Sun

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