Searching for Brangelina? Aiming to see movie-making in action? Here’s where to find it all in the Golden State.
For more than a century, California has been the world’s entertainment hotspot, ever since legendary director Cecil B. DeMille shot Hollywood’s first major motion picture in 1913. Studios soon followed, establishing headquarters here, with filmmakers traveling statewide to take advantage of California’s diverse landscapes—perfect for everything from cowboys and Indians to classic thrillers. Now, a century later, the romance and glamour of Tinsel Town is as much a part of Southern California’s allure as its fabled beaches. And other parts of the state sparkle with star power. Here’s where to sample the cinematic magic statewide.
1. Get inside the studios.
It’s surprisingly easy to get a glimpse of L.A.’s thriving movie and TV industry. Major Hollywood studios are open to the public for tours, the biggest and splashiest being Universal Studios Hollywood, part theme park, part back lot. The studio’s special VIP Experience is a must for movie and TV buffs, with exclusive visits to prop rooms and sets. Nearby, Warner Brothers Studios offers a Deluxe Tour with lunch in the studio commissary—a great place to spot stars. Paramount Pictures hosts two tours, including a four-hour option ideal for serious film fans that covers 100 years of moviemaking. Tours at Sony Pictures in Culver City explore the legendary MGM lot, where films like The Wizard of Oz and Spider-Man were filmed.
2. Hang out in movie-making ‘hoods.
While people use “Hollywood” as shorthand for the movie industry, Northern California is also home to a thriving film community, especially for digital filmmaking. Pixar Animation Studios, located in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Emeryville and co-founded by the late Steve Jobs, is the wellspring of such digital masterpieces as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. Star Wars director George Lucas has long-been based in the area, and his Letterman Digital Arts Center is a buzzing hub of the city’s Presidio, a former military base. Neither of these movie-making meccas is open to the public; though nearby eateries often attract people in the industry. Eavesdrop on conversations at Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emeryville or at the Presidio Supper Club in San Francisco and you might overhear details of a movie in the making.
3. Follow in their footsteps.
Want to get really close to the stars? It’s easy in Hollywood. Start along Hollywood Boulevard, where the sidewalk is inset with terrazzo and brass stars honouring legends of film, TV, music, and theater along the Hollywood Walk of Fame®. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre beckons with its fabled cement forecourt, where you can bend down and touch the hand- and footprints of everyone from John Wayne to Johnny Depp. Be sure to see how tiny Marilyn Monroe’s hands were—and poke your pinky into the imprint left by her stiletto heels.
Next to Grauman’s, a different close-up awaits at Madame Tussauds Hollywood, where you can pose next to incredibly realistic wax figures of stars like Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts. Nearby, you'll find the Kodak Theatre, home to the annual Academy Awards show.
For a rolling tour of the region—including movie-star hangouts and homes—take a guided trip with Star Line Tours.
4. Go on location.
Less than an hour’s drive from Hollywood is Malibu Creek State Park, once home to a movie ranch that served as an international location: Korea in the movie and TV series MASH, Wales in 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, and even outer space in the original Planet of the Apes. In the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, Paramount Ranch swung open its barn doors to moviemaking in 1927. Today, you can visit Western sets used for the long-running series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, starring Jane Seymour.
Moviemakers have turned to locations far from L.A., too. Director Billy Wilder used the elegant Hotel del Coronado near San Diego for the Marilyn Monroe classic, 1959’s Some Like it Hot (look for memorabilia in the handsome lobby). Santa Barbara County has been a favourite too, with locations chosen for films including The Graduate, Seabiscuit, and Sideways. Download self-guided tour itineraries, including an 18-stop Sideways ramble, at santabarbaraca.com.
Heading north, discover the land that Alfred Hitchcock loved to shoot. The iconic director filmed scenes for 1958’s Vertigo at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores and Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He also travelled north to the fishing village of Bodega Bay in Sonoma County for the creepy setting of 1963’s The Birds (some scenes were shot at still-popular The Tides Wharf Restaurant). Also just north of San Francisco, spooky scenes from the 2011 version of Planet of the Apes were shot in Marin County’ Muir Woods National Monument. For an overview of local film locations, consider the three-hour San Francisco Movie Tour.
5. Go where stars go.
From red-hot A-list mega-stars to one-hit wonders, the chances of spotting celebs goes way up in the place where they work, live, and play: Los Angeles. The ritzy shops lining ultra-luxe Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills attract stars with money to burn; visit midweek unless you want to see more gawkers than celebs. With trendy The Ivy Restaurant and edgy boutiques, nearby Robertson Boulevard is another hotspot. And celebs all need their java: The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Sunset Boulevard and Holloway Drive is a fabled haunt.
Stars also love the beach—after all, they can afford the houses. Intimate Malibu Country Mart is like a neighbourhood shopping centre for the gilded set. In sun-splashed Santa Monica, stars adore such oceanfront hotels as Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar. Peruse Montana Avenue’s cafes and boutiques, too—fun even if you’re not on the star prowl.
Another tip: head to Staples Center when basketball’s L.A. Lakers are in town. Scan the crowds (bring binoculars—why not?) for stars, including courtside regulars Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
6. Attend film and TV events.
Another great way to up your odds of seeing celebs is hanging out along red carpets heading into film festivals, award shows, and tapings. January’s Palm Springs International Film Festival features screenings of Oscar contenders, with stars like Charlize Theron and Anne Hathaway blowing kisses to the crowd. The celebrated Santa Barbara International Film Festival shows world and U.S. premieres; past honourees have included Annette Bening and Angelina Jolie.
Every March in Beverly Hills, Paley Center for Media conducts PaleyFest - a series of screenings and panels with casts of such TV shows as Glee, Mad Men, and The Office. Other Paley Center events have included star appearances (think Jeff Bridges) and show previews.
Television shows of all kinds invite live audiences to filming’s; peak season is August through March. Seating is limited but tickets are free, and tapings let you see Hollywood in action and favourite stars behind the scenes. For sources, check websites for specific shows, including Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Another inside tip: During awards shows, producers loath empty seats on camera. So, when stars leave their seats to present or perform—or if they’re just plain late—“seat fillers” slip into and out of the stars’ seats on cue. And guess what? They’re plain folks just like us. If you’re in town during the Screen Actors Guild or other awards show, give it a shot by getting on lists at seatfillers.com.