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'A very small Hollywood'

Because Ashland has lots of cinema crew, acting talent, locations such as forests and mountains, a quaint town — and is loads of fun to hang out in — it has been named to Moviemaker Magazine’s list of “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” for the seventh year in a row.

Ashland may not have the steady work found in California, but, “Of all the communities on the list, we are the smallest, and that’s a real testament to the entire community here and its commitment to the arts and culture,” said longtime local producer-director Gary Kout. “Most other small communities, especially ones as remote as we are, do not have nearly the draw to live and work.”

The magazine says that in choosing the best, it factored in film culture, tax breaks, standard of living, films shot there, and the question: Would we really want to live and work there?

The magazine says Ashland has “a gloriously out-sized film culture ... and is a cinematic powerhouse.” It has eight production facilities and 14 rental houses, with flights available to Portland and Los Angeles.

It notes, “that means film professionals can keep connected to Hollywood even while living in the tranquil foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges.”

Moviemaker bragged about the vast parks and forested canyons of Ashland and its teeming arts festivals.

Film Southern Oregon was quoted as saying film industry spending here is up to $8 million. Recent projects include parts of the Netflix documentary “Fire in Paradise,” and a new series with actor/musician/comedian Jim Belushi, a local cannabis farmer.

A big blessing here is that the Ashland Independent Film Festival “has really nurtured the community, so we have the best audiences for film viewing,” says producer-director Annie Lundgren. “The whole Rogue Valley is incredibly supportive of filmmakers and all art forms. Our base of cast and crew are very talented, and it’s all nurtured for 85 years by the Shakespeare Festival.”

Ashland has a “very rich entrepreneur community, a lot of small-business owners, so there’s a lot of creativity and hard work,” says Lundgren, who has shot seven movies here, including “Phoenix, Oregon,” which gets national release March 20.

To shoot “Phoenix,” Lundgren filmed in six area counties, from coast to high desert, including Klamath Falls, a “normal small-town setting with normal people.”

For city locations, you can do pretty well with Medford, unless you need skyscrapers, then it’s a short flight to LA or Portland, she says. “If you need to bring in additional talent, it’s easy for them to say yes. It’s a great place to visit. If it were in Minnesota, that’s harder.”

Ashland has gained a near-mythical edge for movie-making and the film festival.

“It’s an atmosphere thing,” Lundgren says. “When our actors visit, they love the hotels, downtown, the beauty, the great restaurants. They work really hard and then want the chance to be on vacation. A lot of them bring their spouses. It’s a really nourishing experience for them, and it makes work easier.

“But the vibe is not lackadaisical. This is a super hard-working community with ambition, drive, really supportive — and it doesn’t have that competitive edge of LA, where everyone is not necessarily out to help each other. They’re more out to get each other. Here, we’re all doing the same job. People push you to be your best and try to help. They’re not going to let you get away with being lazy.”

Ashland director Levi Anderson notes, “It’s the awesome, gorgeous community in Ashland, along with so many different landscapes within reach, plus the network of crews, the camaraderie. It can be challenging here to keep steady work going, but everyone supports each other.”

Anderson augments his work off-season by shooting wedding video and doing website design. “It’s a unique way to support yourself. It’s satisfying because it’s such a creative experience, with the whole community getting together to create one work of art.”

“Ashland is an amazing place to make films, a beautiful location with great climate,” says Andrew Gay, director of SOU Digital Cinema Department, which has the fastest-growing major on campus, now with 55 students.

“The nice thing is there are lots of filmmakers right here making movies, working professionals who want to live here,” Gay adds. “It’s a great place to raise children and has lots of retirees from the industry who decide to settle here and keep working and mentoring, helping young people with career advice. It has 200 working professionals in the region, with Ashland as its center, and it’s become a very small Hollywood.”

The pool of film talent here keeps building with younger entrants — and many, including SOU film graduates, go off seeking opportunities in larger markets, with some returning here for quality of life and raising children.

So, says Kout, “the community is not bigger but stronger. A lot of people who have been here are not leaving. It’s a continual upward trend, and we still find work in other locations if we want, and come back here.”

When directors ask who they should bring for a shoot, says Kout, he tells them “bring the people you want, not the ones you need, because we can cover that.”

A big part of the attraction for filmmakers, Kout says, is that many have worked in big cities and they’re accustomed to major cultural assets, and here they have them: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Southern Oregon University with its new digital cinema degree, Ashland Independent Film Festival, Britt Music Festivals, Teen Musical Theater of Oregon, Camelot Theatre, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, plus a thriving spectrum of top galleries and restaurants, “way better than people expect when they come here.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

courtesy photo Crews work on the movie "Phoenix, Oregon." Ashland was named to Moviemaker Magazine's “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” list for the seventh year in a row.