With its sunny atmosphere and beautiful landscapes, Santa Barbara County has been a backdrop for hundreds of movies and television shows over the decades.
“The Central Coast is like Hollywood’s backyard because you can go and picture yourself anywhere in the world,” Daniel Lahr, founder and executive director of the Central Coast Film Society, told Noozhawk.
“It’s just really an amazing area for other producers to come.”
Santa Barbara was home to California’s very first movie studio, Flying A Studios. Built in 1910, Flying A Studios produced a variety of silent films.
“Flying A was really almost a bigger deal than Hollywood at that time in producing more movies,” Lahr said. “With such a wide range of locations in the county, it helps make the filming location decision a lot easier for producers.”
In the last 100 years, more than 250 movies and TV shows were filmed throughout the county.
The first major production filmed in the county was The Ten Commandments, a 1923 silent black-and-white film partially shot at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. The Cecil B. DeMille-directed epic film recreated the biblical story of The Exodus in the prologue before telling a modern story of two brothers and their views of the Ten Commandments.
The sand dunes were used to resemble the Egyptian desert and were used in the Exodus scenes of the film. DeMille erected a massively extravagant set in the dunes to act as The City of the Pharaoh, which was abandoned and left in pieces where they stood after filming.
Uncovered decades later, remnants and artifacts from the set are on display at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, including a 5-foot-tall terracotta-colored sphinx head found in 2017.
“It’s a fascinating thing that the area has become a sort of archaeological site,” Lahr said.
The sand dunes were also used to shoot part of Disney’s adventure fantasy film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the third film in the movie series starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Montecito resident Orlando Bloom.
An astonished Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Depp, watches as an army of crabs appears on the dunes to carry the stranded Black Pearl pirate ship back to the sea.
“I remember watching the movie and I could tell just by looking at the background that it was the Guadalupe Dunes,” Lahr said.
The Rocketeer, a 1991 superhero film set in the 1930s, used an abandoned World War II runway in Santa Maria as the scene for the Chaplin Air Field in the movie.
Cliff Secord, played by Billy Campbell, uses a rocket-powered jet pack throughout the film, including a scene in which he rescues the pilot of a crashing plane during an air show.
Around 700 extras from the Santa Maria area were called in to serve as the spectators in the stands for the thrilling scene, according to Lahr.
Images of the surrounding Santa Maria area are shown as the airplane plummets through the sky.
“That was a huge movie to come out in the ’90s that went on to be a big success,” Lahr said. “It really shows the whole area of the northern county.”
The 2004 comedy-drama film Sideways helped put Santa Barbara County wine country on the map as two men take a week-long road trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate an upcoming wedding. About 90 percent of the film was shot in the Santa Ynez Valley, according to Lahr.
The film’s popularity attracted waves of tourists and changed the wine industry in the region.
Main character Miles Raymond, played by Paul Giamatti, speaks admiringly about pinot noir wine throughout the movie while belittling merlot.
“After the movie was released, local Santa Ynez winemakers had what they called the ‘Sideways effect’ when it came to their merlot sales,” Lahr said. “It’s just amazing how movies have that effect on certain things.”
On the 15th anniversary of the film in 2019, the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance debuted its Sideways Fest, which included a screening of the film as well as wine from local wineries featured in the movie. A bus tour shuttled guests around different stops shown in the movie, including the Sideways Inn in Buellton, OstrichLand and the Solvang Restaurant.
Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara shows up in the original 1966 Batman movie as the iconic Gotham City. The wharf appears again as itself in Disney’s 1997 film My Favorite Martian, and the movie portrays the first space shuttle launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base at the beginning of the film.
Death Proof, a 2007 slasher film, also shot scenes in the Santa Ynez Valley. Roads in Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos and Lompoc are filmed as the Tennessee backroads shown as stunt actors Mike McKay, portrayed by Kurt Russell, and Zoë Bell, played by herself, drive around using a “death-proof” stunt car for their murderous plans.
More recently, Star Trek: Picard, a 2020 television series in the Star Trek franchise, also filmed a scene at Sunstone Winery in Santa Ynez, according to Lahr, and very prominently displayed the facility.
Last year also brought Solvang a featured role in A Very Charming Christmas Town, which also starred Natalie Hall.
The 2009 romantic comedy It’s Complicated, starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, is set mostly and filmed partially in Santa Barbara where Streep and Baldwin’s divorced characters continue an affair. Exterior shots were filmed in Montecito and Santa Barbara, and additional scenes were taken in front of Santa Barbara landmarks including the County Courthouse.
The hit comedy-drama detective television series Psych was set in Santa Barbara but was filmed primarily in British Columbia.
Shawn Spencer, played by James Roday, and his best friend, Gus, played by Dulé Hill, open a psychic detective agency and work as consultants for the Santa Barbara Police Department and other clients.
Although many of the aerial helicopter shots were filmed in Santa Barbara — including the wharf, the Courthouse and other recognizable locations — the characters solve their crimes amid Vancouver skyscrapers and tool around scenery filled with fir trees instead of palms.
Additionally, Sunnydale, the fictional town in the television drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is located in Santa Barbara County. A season four episode reveals that Sunnydale is in the former land of the Chumash people, which are centered in the county, and some aerial shots clearly feature downtown Santa Barbara. The show was mostly filmed in Los Angeles.
The beautiful geography of Santa Barbara has also made the county a desired pit-stop for reality TV series. Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen have all filmed episodes in the region. The Amazing Race, The Great Food Truck Race and American Idol also have filmed in Santa Barbara.
“One of the things about reality TV shows is that they’re one of the more driving forces of tourism,” Lahr said, adding that shows like The Bachelor bring a lot of visitors to the county.
Click here for a comprehensive list of movies and television shows filmed in the county.
— Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.