My wife saw Paul Giamatti â€” or at least someone who looked like Paul Giamatti â€” driving in Buellton the other day.
Up until a month or two ago, such an event wouldnâ€™t have registered on her radar. Heck, hardly anyone â€” locals included â€” wouldâ€™ve understood the full scope of that sentence.
â€œWhereâ€™s Buellton again?â€?
Now, however, it seems the entire nation knows about actor Paul Giamatti and quaint little Buellton. Thatâ€™s because â€œSidewaysâ€? â€” a feature film that meanders through Santa Barbara wine country â€” 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.
- DRINK WITH ME : Santa Barbara County wine country takes the spotlight in â€œSideways,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 whoâ€™ve been here all along were sitting back, snug and proud to live in a life-sized movie set. Many critics have â€” to the point of speaking in cliches â€” 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 heâ€™d been there.
â€œThatâ€™s the River Course at Alisal!â€? 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 â€” even freeway signs â€” 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 movieâ€™s two protagonists, Miles and Jack, rolled into a garish tasting room dubbed Frass Canyon.
â€œFrass Canyon? Whereâ€™s Frass Canyon? I donâ€™t know Frass Canyon!â€?
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 Iâ€™m very familiar, as itâ€™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 couldnâ€™t contain myself.
Neither can anyone else, apparently. â€œSidewaysâ€? has spawned online discussion-board conversations (take a peek at wineaccess.com and wineloverspage.com) covering topics ranging from which wines were included in the movie to the authenticity of the filmâ€™s winespeak to whether Los Olivos and Buellton are real places. East Coast residents in the know â€” from occasional jaunts to California, natch â€” 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.
Martine White, county film commissioner with the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission (SBCVBFC), said that â€œSidewaysâ€? 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 â€œanything you might need if youâ€™re going to do a shoot here.â€?
â€œWe have scouts who come out regularly for our rolling green hills,â€? White said.
White spent 11 years in the film industry, so she knows how the business works. If a production stays within a â€œ30-mile zoneâ€? in L.A. it doesnâ€™t have to pay mileage and extra benefits.
â€œLos Angeles will always be first,â€? White said. â€œOutside of that, you try to shoot things close to home.â€?
In the film industryâ€™s eyes, Santa Barbara County is the best of both worlds. Itâ€™s far enough from L.A. to have the â€œfresh, green look,â€? but itâ€™s close enough to be a cost-effective alternative.
â€œWeâ€™re very fortunate to be in that range that includes Santa Barbara through San Diego,â€? she said. â€œWeâ€™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 itâ€™s farther ... .â€?
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 everythingâ€™s green.
â€œThis time of year, weâ€™ll probably get five or six a month â€” except when itâ€™s raining,â€? she said. â€œWeâ€™re talking really nice ones like Lexus, Porsche, Mercedes. They just keep coming back every year.â€?
White also helps production companies with the permit process. While she canâ€™t actually issue permits, she directs people to the proper agencies. She said her biggest call during the â€œSidewaysâ€? shoot involved a permit, though problems didnâ€™t seem to be the norm.
White said that the commission had a good experience with the â€œSidewaysâ€? crew and nominated them for â€œbest production company of the yearâ€? in 2004â€™s California on Location Awards â€” also known as the Colas â€” something like the Oscars for location managers in the state. The â€œSidewaysâ€? crew faced competition from the crews from â€œVan Helsingâ€? and â€œLost in Plainview.â€?
â€œ[Director] Alexander Payne has a reputation for working locally,â€? White said. â€œHe gets to know the locals and works with them and sets up a network in advance.â€?
For â€œSideways,â€? White explained, Payne wine-tasted his way around the county and got to know everyone before he started shooting.
â€œHe left a very good taste in everybodyâ€™s mouth,â€? she said.
â€œWe, for the last year, have been trying to raise the awareness of the [Conference & Visitors Bureau],â€? White said. â€œMost people donâ€™t know what it is, but â€˜Sidewaysâ€™ has done it for us.â€?
Shannon Brooks, communications manager for the SBCVBFC, said that interest in â€œSidewaysâ€? has also brought a noticeable increase in attention to the county. She noted that the Hitching Post and Los Olivos CafÃ© have said that business was up by 20 percent, attributed to the movie.
- ON LOCATION : Director Alexander Payne and his crew befriended locals throughout the production. The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission nominated the â€œSidewaysâ€? team as the top production crew of the year in the 2004 California on Location Awards.
#â€œI think itâ€™s a pretty unique situation because of the way the wine â€” and the location itself â€” was part of the movie story,â€? she said. â€œSanta Barbara has been used in locations in big-name films recently, but you donâ€™t get the name recognition in it because itâ€™s posing as something else.â€? She cited â€œHidalgoâ€? and â€œSeabiscuitâ€? 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 â€œmedia hits,â€? 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 wouldâ€™ve spent to get the coverage itâ€™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 â€œSidewaysâ€? 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 â€œtaste your way through Santa Barbara Wine Country on the same path forged by Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) â€¦ .â€?
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 â€œSidewaysâ€? screened as the eventâ€™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 â€œSidewaysâ€? promotion in Europe since the film opens in Germany and the U.K. later this month. Sheâ€™s coordinating various sweepstakes that will bring the winners to Santa Barbaraâ€™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 â€œSidewaysâ€? is released on DVD.
â€œWe really didnâ€™t have any idea how successful the film was going to be,â€? Brooks said. â€œObviously, we hoped for it.â€?
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 email@example.com.