Let’s assume for the moment that this June you’re graduating from film school in, say, New York. You know some moviemakers in Greenpoint who’ll help you work on your projects, and vice versa. But rent, even in the scummier parts of Brooklyn, is exorbitant, and you’re flirting with the idea of leaving town for a new city to start your career as a moviemaker. What criteria do you use? Are you more interested in tax incentives or access to good cinema? Do you prefer cheap rent to a tight-knit creative community? Is cheap equipment year round better than a great film festival that parks in your neighborhood for two weeks in March?
To put ourselves in the shoes of new moviemakers (or even old ones looking for a change), we asked ourselves, “What is the description of an ideal moviemaking city?” After some semantical debate, here’s what we came up with: An affordable, intellectually vibrant community that gives tax incentives for in-city or in-state production, and which offers moviemakers access both to equipment and groundbreaking film screenings.
To determine which cities made the cut (and in what order), we cobbled together myriad statistics for each city—including population, dollars generated by the film industry, list of movie projects, cultural vibrancy, and availability of production facilities. That data then helped us narrow down our assessment rubric to just five criteria, and we scored each of 50 cities, comparing the following information: Film Community (scored on 10 scale), Access to New Films (10 scale), Access to Equipment (seven scale), Cost of Living (scored on a reverse five scale—one being the most expensive, five being the least) and Tax Incentives (four scale). The highest possible score was a 36, and individual scores for each of the top 10 cities are provided below.
After going through this process, though, we realized that we finally need to expand this list. Next year, we’ll be ranking the “Top Big Cities” to be a moviemaker, as well as the “Top Small Cities” and “Top Towns.” Shreveport, Louisiana won’t have to compete with New York City based on our new rubric, and Marfa, Texas can’t compete with Boston. But that doesn’t mean both towns don’t deserve an endorsement.
1. Austin, TX (Score: 32)
Making it to the top of our list is the one, the only…Austin. The film capital of Texas—home to SXSW, Austin Film Festival, and Fantastic Fest, to name three—Austin has been a thriving, moviemaker-friendly community for years. “Austin is home to crew members with the talent and technical skills to make good movies, and remains small enough that people help out on each other’s projects when needed, instead of viewing other projects as a threat.” says Sushi director Mark Hall. “Also, the amazing folks at the Austin Film Society have helped me and many others, not only with the facilities to shoot or test what we’re working on, but also with funding through the Texas Film Production Fund.”
The city is home to some of today’s most exciting auteurs, including Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused; Bernie), the Duplass brothers (Baghead; Jeff Who Lives at Home) and, of course, Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi; Machete), who has made virtually all his films in the city, and owns the Austin-based production company, Troublemaker Studios. Rodriguez has also utilized the space at the 10,000-square-foot Austin Studios, managed by the Austin Film Society, which houses production offices, sound stages and the largest green screen in Texas (True Grit and 25th Hour are just two of the films shot there).
Other movies to recently shoot in the city include Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche and Terrence Malick’s star-studded untitled project, which is set against Austin’s eclectic music scene. Austin also offers a five to 17.5 percent incentive program, in addition to sales tax exemptions. One of the city’s strongest assets is its depth of dependable crews for film projects. On most features shot in Texas, nearly 80 percent of the jobs are filled locally—which, as a result, saves on housing, transportation and per diems. Austin also continues to waive permit fees, and makes city locations available at “cost,” without reservation or location fees. Also beneficial to moviemakers is the “Now Playing” film discount card, created for both big and small-budget productions, where local vendors participate free of charge and offer discounts to working casts and crews. With its laid-back atmosphere, creative artistic community, and diverse topography, Austin is a moviemaker’s dream.
“Austin is a magical city filled with creative folks, beautiful locations and endless energy,” says moviemaker Bob Ray (Total Badass). “The audiences in Austin are some of the best in the world and folks come out and support the film scene with a passion. On top of that, the University of Texas cranks out a new breed of moviemakers every year; add that to the locals and the transplants and we have a hell of a film scene in Austin.”
2. New York, NY (Score: 31)
Coming in just behind Austin is the city that never sleeps (and, apparently, never stops filming, either). Though Hollywood may be recognized as the film capitol of the world, it’s in the heart of the Big Apple where the spirit of independent cinema thrives. The city’s gritty atmosphere and melting pot of cultures, neighborhoods and lifestyles—coupled with its diverse, historic architecture—provide moviemakers with limitless shooting locations. The city generated a whopping $7.1 billion in 2011, and recent high-profile films to shoot in NYC include Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, the Will Smith vehicle Winter’s Tale, and Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic, Noah.
“I don’t think there’s anything quite like New York City, in terms of creative energy and production value, that inspires great filmmaking,” says writer-director David Spaltro, who shot his second indie, Things I Don’t Understand, in New York. Plus, the city offers many special programs and incentives, including a 30 percent refundable tax credit for qualified production expenditures and a 30-35 percent tax credit on post-production services. There’s also a sales tax exemption on production goods and services. And there’s even more! The “Made in NY” program offers many benefits for moviemakers, including discount cards, which provide deals and special offers when presented to participating vendors (including hotels, restaurants and health clubs), as well as a marketing credit for productions that complete 75 percent of their work in NYC. And that’s just the tax incentives.
“I’ve shot two features in New York City and its boroughs, and there’s really nothing like having access to so many different types of locations, both interiors and exteriors, as well as significant sound stages, within a very short drive from Manhattan, and where there is so much talent available in terms of both crew and actors,” says writer-director Katherine Dieckmann (Motherhood). “New York City is the ideal epicenter for the independent filmmaker.”
The much less quantifiable upside to making movies in New York is the other people who make movies in New York. NYU, Columbia, the New School, Coopers Union, and Pratt—just to name five—are the university breeding grounds for the next generation of film. And when you throw in the New York International Film Festival, Lincoln Center, the IFC Center, the Angelika, the Nighthawk in Brooklyn (where you can drink a Magic Hat while you’re watching Ryan Gosling kill someone in a Nicholas Winding-Refn film), New York is almost the best place to be a moviemaker. If only it didn’t cost so damned much to live there.
3. Seattle, WA (score: 30.5)
Seattle is quickly becoming a “go-to” city for small-budget moviemakers, with such recently acclaimed indies as Your Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Eden taking advantage of all the tax incentive goodies the city (and state) has to offer. “Shooting in Seattle was fantastic,” remarks Rufus Williams, director of Butterfly Dreaming. “The city is a standout for its moody, light-varied looks. But, more than that, the people here are enthusiastic and helpful; I was struck by the tight-knit film community, something that is a real blessing for an independent filmmaker. We benefited immeasurably from the film office’s help in finding great local crews and locations.”
The vibrant Seattle film industry supports over 5,000 jobs, 700 freelancers and contributes $471 million to the city’s economy. And the city makes the filming process as easy as possible for moviemakers. The dedicated Film Office is a one-stop shop for all logistical production needs, and provides permits for use of all city-owned property—for just $25 per project (of up to 14 days) for low-budget film productions. Seattle also offers a number of financial incentives, including a 30 percent cash back film incentive for productions that shoot in the city, as well as sales tax exemptions on rental equipment, vehicles used in production, and 30 consecutive days of lodging.
Much like its independent music scene, Seattle is renowned as a hip indie moviemaking hub, with a strong sense of community and collaboration. Film is serious business in Seattle, and a moviemaker would be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming, creatively inspiring environment to film his or her latest production. “The Seattle filmmaking community is a nurturing, inclusive and vibrant one, filled with folks who have a genuine passion for making movies,” says writer-director Lynn Shelton (the upcoming Touchy Feely; My Sister’s Sister; Humpday) of shooting in her hometown. “Whether it’s a local director or an out-of-town company, our local crews bring so much talent, good spirit and artistry to everything shot here. Seattle filmmakers will undoubtedly continue to deliver excellent homegrown films, building on the reputation of quality that’s been building for the past decade.” Also, MovieMaker first appeared on the streets of Seattle back in 1993. The Emerald City must be doing something right.
4. Los Angeles, CA (score: 29)
Though it’s perhaps the most predictable choice on this list, there’s no doubt that LA, the Entertainment Capital of the World, deserves to be included. In 2009, the California Film Commission launched the California Film & Television Tax Credit Program—a five year, $500 million dollar program that provides tax credits to eligible film productions that meet the program’s criteria. This includes a 25 percent tax credit on independent films (costing $1 million total production budget up to $10 million qualified expenditure budget) that shoot in the state. $100 million is annually being allocated to the program, while a minimum of $10 million of the annual funding is available yearly for indies. The city also offers a 5 percent sales tax exemption.
And if you need permit help for your movie production, look no further than FilmL.A.—a private, non-profit organization that coordinates and processes permits for unique locales like Angeles National Forest and City of Industry. But like New York, tax incentives don’t paint the full picture. The studio system is centered in LA, but most indie moviemakers are actively trying to avoid the studio system. What makes LA unique are the filmmaker non-profits that have sprung up to support a generation of DIY filmmakers: From Cinefamily in West Hollywood, founded with the goal of reviving under-appreciated film and bringing groundbreaking new work to Southern California; to We Make Movies, a 501(c)3 whose community of 1,500 filmmakers, as their website says, is “dedicated to helping the movie industry not suck…one movie at a time.”
“The most beneficial thing when it comes to making a film in Los Angeles is the vast network,” says Jameel Saleem, writer-director of The Rub. “I have actor friends, cinematographer friends, editor friends, producer friends, gaffer friends, sound mixer friends, etc. If you’re positive and driven, these friends aren’t hard to find.” Los Angeles has the community and the resources to compete with the any other movie city in the world. If only the traffic weren’t so soul-crushing.
Portland offers a number of benefits for moviemakers looking to shoot in a slower-paced, naturally beautiful city environment without the hustle-and-bustle of New York or LA. Perks include a temperate climate, gorgeous scenery and, perhaps most important, affordability. Not only is there no sales tax in Oregon (yay!), there are no fees for the 200 historic state parks, and lodging taxes are waived for rooms held longer than 30 days.
The city offers a 20 percent cash rebate on production-related goods and services paid to Oregon vendors (for projects spending a minimum of $750,000 in the state) and a 6.2 percent rebate of Oregon-based payroll (for those spending a minimum of $1 million). There’s also an additional cash payment of up to 16.2 percent of wages paid to production personnel. And, unlike many other states’ programs, these incentives are cash rebates as opposed to tax credits. Sound appealing yet?
Portland has previously been used for such diverse films as Wendy and Lucy, Twilight and A Harold & Kumar 3-D Christmas. “From equipment rental places to locations to the police to people on the street, everyone was extremely friendly and eager to help,” says writer-director Aaron Katz of returning to his hometown to shoot Cold Weather. Don’t miss the opportunity to take advantage of this hip yet affordable city. They’ve got the best food truck culture north of the grapevine, and the best beer culture west of Belgium. If the characters in “Portlandia” disgust you, Portland isn’t your city. But if Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein remind you of your friends, you might want to pack up your camera, car, and bike, and move there already.
6. Detroit, MI (score: 28)
If you’re looking for a unique city atmosphere—one that offers both beautiful lakefronts and picturesque landscapes, as well as urban environments that range from ultra-modern to dystopian—then film in Detroit. “The history of the town also makes it a fabulous location for a period film, and the blue-collar character of the city can provide interesting drama,” says writer-producer Clark McMillan (Prayer Life). “The very fabric of the city is woven in creativity.”
Perhaps most importantly, Detroit offers a whopping 42 percent tax incentive (for projects with expenditures of at least $100,000), making the Motor City one of the country’s most cost-effective and attractive locations for film productions. The Detroit film office currently has $57 million available for incentives in 2013; in 2012, projects were awarded $17,807,292. The film office also offers an iPhone app that allows moviemakers to access online directories at the touch of a screen—including a location database (featuring 78,000 photos of over 5,400 locations across the state), as well as a production directory of Michigan crew and support services. On top of that, the non-profit organization Film Detroit offers a helping hand to moviemakers by assisting productions in finding appropriate locations and facilities throughout the city, as well as coordinating long-term hotel accommodations for cast and crew—all at absolutely no cost.
With its high tax incentives and array of benefits, the “Motor City” could become just as well known for being the “Movie City.” And since the median home price in Detroit is still hovering around $20,000 (i.e. what it would cost to rent a one bedroom in Greenwich Village for six months), if you’re really intrepid, you can take over an entire block of Detroit and turn it into your own studio lot. If you want to get your hands dirty (and potential crime issues don’t scare you off), the Motor City is calling.
7. Boston, MA (score: 27.5)
Both hilarious comedies (Ted; The Proposal) and hard-hitting dramas (the upcoming Labor Day; The Town) have recently found a home in Boston, which offers a wealth of opportunities for moviemakers. “I think Boston’s a great town for making films,” offers native son and writer-director Rod Webber (Northern Comfort, Monkfish). “When it comes down to it, Boston’s got real character. You’ve got virtually every actual location of every major event that took place at the birth of the American Revolution. There are also a wide variety of groups to rally your team when it comes time to shoot. The Boston film community is full of honest, hardworking talent.”
The city offers several tax incentives, including a 25 percent production credit (for projects spending more than 50 percent of the total budget filming in the state), 25 percent payroll credit and a sales tax exemption. In addition, the Massachusetts Film Office (MFO), one of the country’s first official state film offices, offers several attractive services for indie moviemakers, assisting with everything from location scouting and permitting to dealing with government relations and union issues. The MFO website also features a regularly updated production resource directory, which allows moviemakers to search for crewmembers and support services.
And speaking of production, the city is host to many production (and post-production) facilities, including Modulus Studios and Sound & Vision Media. Boston also has some burgeoning film schools—including programs at Emerson and Boston University—but the town, culturally, remains more literary than cinematic. The only thing holding Boston back right now is resident moviemakers’ access to new work. There are great indie theatres, like Coolidge Corner in Brookline, and if the local festivals ascend to “World Premiere” status, Beantown could best Detroit’s ranking.
8. Albuquerque, NM (score: 27)
With its warm, sunny climate and diverse array of landscapes—which range from urban cityscapes and small-town suburbia to rural prairie land and forests—it’s no mystery why Albuquerque continues to attract all kinds of movie productions, from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters to small independents. Recent productions include last year’s smash hit The Avengers and this summer’s highly-anticipated The Lone Ranger, as well as the critically acclaimed TV series, “Breaking Bad.”
Renowned as the Creative Capital of the Southwest, the city holds a long-standing reputation as a dependable, cost-effective city in which to film. “New Mexico is a fantastic state to shoot in,” says Craig Butler, who made the micro-budgeted The Righteous and the Wicked in Albuquerque. “It has great incentives and numerous production resources, such as a prop/costume warehouse filled with things left behind by past productions, and entire Old West towns that have been preserved as film locations. The Albuquerque Film Office is amazing and local businesses are film friendly. The independent filmmaker couldn’t ask for a better place to work.” Adds Ryil Adamson, producer of Adventures of a Teenage Dragonslayer: “I don’t think we could’ve made our movie in any other city in the world. We were able to find people who had worked on the biggest movies in the world. We also needed extra help from the city, and the whole community pitched in. The local SAG office even assisted us with casting.”
Albuquerque offers a number of incentive programs, including a 25 percent tax credit, as well as a six percent tax deduction on gross receipts. The city is also home to the state-of-the art, 28-acre Albuquerque Studios (located just five minutes from Albuquerque International Airport), which includes eight soundstages, ample production office and mill space, and a large back lot. In addition, on-location shooting in state-owned buildings is free and there are no fees for permits. With so many great benefits, there’s no reason not to take advantage of all that Albuquerque offers. If the live-in film community continues to grow over the next few years as more moviemakers drawn by the tax incentives decide to stay permanently, expect to see Albuquerque climb our ranking ladder again.
What do Django Unchained, Looper, and Killing Them Softly have in common (well, aside from being pretty damned bloody)? They all used New Orleans as a filming location. With its 30 percent transferable incentive (for total in-state expenditures of at least $300,000) five percent labor tax credit (for hiring Louisiana residents), mild climate and vibrant music scene, it’s obvious that the Big Easy is too good a filming opportunity to pass up.
“As the Louisiana film industry has steadily grown, we’ve been able to do everything from pre-production to production,” says Chris Stelly, executive director of film and television for Louisiana’s Office of Entertainment Industry Development. “We’re now starting to see the growth of the post-production industry.” The city is home to an array of state-of-the-art soundstages and facilities, including FotoKem, the world’s largest independently-owned post-production facility (which has serviced such diverse films as The Master and Jeff Who Lives at Home), Second Line Stages (the first independent, green film studio in the US) and Maison Post, which offers state-of-the-art editing bays, 24/7.
With these kinds of amazing resources, it’s obvious why more and more moviemakers are choosing to flock to New Orleans. After all, the Big Easy is the most European city in America, where you’re allowed to drink a yard-long daiquiri while driving your car (actually that’s not very European at all). Drinking and driving aside, though, New Orleans isn’t just the unique and vibrant epicenter of Cajun culture. It’s also home to the rapidly expanding New Orleans Film Festival, where hardworking Executive Director Jolene Pinder and Program Director Clint Bowie continue to curate one of the most dynamic slates in the South.
10. Atlanta, GA (score: 25.5)
Atlanta provides a helping hand not only to moviemakers (since July 2012, over 90 projects, including the upcoming comedy The Internship and The Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, have filmed in the city), but apparently to the undead, as well. The hugely successful TV series “The Walking Dead” has utilized Atlanta’s resources since its debut in 2010, and Zombieland was shot in the city as well. As for humans, Atlanta boasts a 20 percent transferable tax credit for in-state production expenses, and an additional 10 percent for productions that include a promotional logo provided by the state.
Atlanta is also quickly becoming an entertainment destination for moviemakers in need of some southern hospitality. EUE/Screen Gems recently built a 33-acre production complex in downtown Atlanta, which houses one of the largest soundstages (37,500 square feet) in the country. Other options include Raleigh Studios, the largest independent studio operator in the US, and the 200,000 square-foot Tyler Perry Studios.
“Georgia has a strong indie filmmaker presence,” says Lee Thomas, director of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office. “We’ve had many great success stories come out of the area—the filmmakers at Pop Films, Hadjii Hand from Athens, for example, and of course Will Packer and Rob Hardy of Rainforest Films. I think that even the most seasoned crews are willing to help up-and-coming filmmakers. There’s definitely a sense of community in the film industry here.”
Movie-related spending has boomed in the city in recent years, and with its ever-growing, bustling film community, now is the perfect time to film in Atlanta (regardless of whether you have a zombie flick in the works). Add another few independent theaters to this developing film metropolis and we can easily envision Atlanta moving up a slot or two in next year’s survey.
San Antonio, TX (score: 24.5)
While it may not be quite as popular as its Lone Star sister city, Austin, San Antonio, the country’s seventh most populous city, is quickly rising. In March, San Antonio will offer a new tax incentive program that will make it the only place in Texas to offer 20 percent. Currently, a budget of $250,000 in in-state spending is all it takes to qualify for the state’s 7.5 percent cash grant, with projects spending $5 million eligible for a 17.5 percent grant. The city also offers up-front sales tax exemptions and a six percent state occupancy tax. Also of interest is the San Antonio Local Filmmakers Grant, which provides residents with a $25,000 matching grant to make a feature-length motion picture in the city. San Antonio is also home to the country’s largest Alamo Drafthouse movie theater, a must-attend for any cinephile. With its cost-effective new incentive and briskly emerging moviemaking scene, it wouldn’t surprise us to see San Antonio crack the top 10 next year.
Philadelphia, PA (score: 24)
Known as the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia extends that familial affection to visiting moviemakers, as well. The city offers a 25 percent tax credit to films that spend at least 60 percent of their total production budget in the state. And for no fee, moviemakers may be able to use city-owned property for location filming. Recent movies to shoot in the city include the highly acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook, as well as the upcoming After Earth (starring Will and Jaden Smith) and Paranoia (starring Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford). The Greater Philadelphia Film Office also lends a helping hand by providing assistance with permits, labors and locations, and acts as the liaison between the productions and the local community. “Philadelphia is a great city with remarkable locations, an extraordinary film commission, competitive financial incentives and the most capable of crews,” says Mark Gill, CEO of The Film Department, an independent movie finance, production and international sales company. Philadelphia may not be able to compete with New York for access to avante garde cinema, but you can just about get a huge loft and set up a greenscreen studio for the cost of a cup of pour-over coffee in SoHo.
CITIES ON THE RISE
With its bustling nightlife and art scene, Wichita is slowly but surely evolving into a cultural and entertainment center. MSN Real Estate recently recognized Wichita as the most affordable city in the US. The city offers a 30 percent tax credit, and there are no state filming permits or hotel occupancy taxes for stays in excess of 28 days. Also benefiting moviemakers is the Kansas Production Guide, a detailed directory of local crew, companies, talent, and resources available to productions shooting in the state. For over 10 years, Wichita has been home to the renowned Tallgrass Film Festival, which supports indies from around the world. “Wichita is a great place for independent filmmaking,” says Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association. “Shooting is easy here. There’s very little red tape, and there are plenty of local people who are experienced in all aspects of production and readily available for shoots. Wichita has the same amenities as many larger cities, but it’s smaller and cheaper.” With its cost-effective methods and expansive, geographically diverse landscapes, Wichita is a perfect option for moviemakers looking to shoot somewhere off the beaten path.
Though it may lack New Orleans’ size and moviemaking heritage, Shreveport is emerging in its own right as a viable, cost-effective option for moviemakers looking to shoot in the south. “The city bends over backwards to help filmmakers realize their dreams, and the infrastructure and growing crew base is top-notch,” says producer Michael Flannigan. “It’s a very easy city to navigate and has a diverse look in terms of locations.” In addition to a 2.5 percent sales tax rebate, Shreveport offers such benefits as free locations for most city- and parish-owned buildings, free water for shooting within city limits, and no permit fees for closing state and local roadways to film. The Shreveport-Bossier City Film Office also lends a hand by assisting with casting and prop manufacturing, as well as arranging access to a number of innovative sound stages and studio facilities (totaling more than 870,000 square feet), including the Louisiana Wave Studio (the country’s largest wave tank facility, which generates waves up to nine feet high), StageWorks (the region’s largest and most well appointed studio center) and Millenium Studios, which houses sound stages, a full-service prop house, production service company and more. The only reason Shreveport isn’t a “Top 10” city this year is because of the limited access local moviemakers have to new films. None of the local film festivals is a destination festival—yet.