Big Cities: (Tie) 1. New York, New York
It’s been over 30 years since Annie Hall covered the kitchen in lobsters, and 20 years since George and Elaine didn’t get their soup, but New York’s time is far from over. Fortunately, despite high rents and stiff competition, it’s still a great place for a moviemaker to call home.
In fact, production in New York is on the rise. 2016 saw around 300 film productions in the city; some titles you’ll come across in the next 12 months include the Liam Neeson action-thriller The Commuter, Michael Showalter’s Sundance-premiering The Big Sick, S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Perry Lang’s An Interview with God. New York also strengthened its position as the TV industry’s arguable headquarters: There were 52 episodic series shot during the 2015-16 season (up from 46 series the year before), from Broad City to Difficult People to Mr. Robot.
All told, the production industry contributed $9 billion to the city’s economy in 2016, employing 130,000 workers. Notably, the state offers an excellent tax incentive (a 30 percent refundable state tax credit, with a 35 percent credit for certain post expenses), with potential bonuses for productions shot in NYC itself, and certain areas upstate.
New York is known for its grit, but the ruthless city has put together a selection of standout local services that support the moviemaking industry in innovative ways. One exciting recent initiative, launched in October 2016, is NYC Film Green, a program whereby productions voluntarily engage in sustainable practices including waste reduction, energy conservation and staff education. This groundbreaking government program is the first of its kind in the United States. There’s the Made in NY Writers Room program, a new partnership between the NYC Department of Small Business Services and WGA East, offering writers of diverse backgrounds a six-month fellowship with established local showrunners. Fall 2016 also saw the announcement by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment of a bevy of programs to combat gender inequality in entertainment, such as a $5 million grant fund for female-centered work, a screenwriting contest for female television writers and a report analyzing the gender inequity of directors in the film industry. Together with the established Made in NY program (which features PA training, media training, career panels and free advertising to projects that film the majority of their work in the five boroughs), these initiatives make the message clear: New York City truly values its moviemakers.
Director Adam Leon shot both his features, 2012’s Gimme the Loot and the upcoming Netflix release Tramps, in the city. “You get this incredible production value by just putting a camera in the middle of the city, where people are constantly moving,” he says. “They’re not stopping and looking at the camera—they’re just being in this active place.”
The density of film schools—besides the biggies like NYU and Columbia, there’s the recently opened Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College, the city’s first public graduate school for cinema—means incoming talent and experienced movie crews. Your casting calls are sure to turn up gold, whether it be graduates from Juilliard, Broadway performers (or off-Broadway, or off-off Broadway), or the talent pool from comedy institutions like the Upright Citizens Brigade, the PIT and the Annoyance Theater.
You might have to live in a shoebox in Astoria, but hey, you won’t need a car. And if want to get any kind of food in the world at 3 a.m., you’ll be glad you’re there.
Big Cities: (Tie) 1. Vancouver, British Columbia
Vancouver: Hollywood’s dirty little secret, or a moviemaking paradise? The city has doubled for so many American metropolises on screen—like, in 2016, Jason Reitman’s Tully; Wonder, starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay; Bong Joon-ho’s Okja; the upcoming Power Rangers movie and dozens upon dozens of series—that it’s sometimes easy to forget its own sizeable charm. So what’s all the buzz “aboot?”
The obvious first answer is that production is, simply, cheaper: British Columbia offers a Production Services Tax Credit for international projects with a base refundable 28 percent credit (down from 33 percent before October 2016), with possibilities for an additional 6 percent depending on region, and a 16 percent Digital Animation or Visual Effects (DAVE) credit. For local BC productions, it’s even better: a base refundable credit of 35 percent, up to 12.5 percent regional credit, plus a 30 percent film training credit. There are no caps and no sunset date on these programs.
Vancouver has a tight-knit community of moviemakers (genre ones especially), and a huge slew of production and post facilities and local innovators—including Aircover Inflatables, which won a 2016 Technical Achievement Academy Award for their Airwall, a blow-up green screen. With 16 schools offering filmmaking programs, from Centre for Digital Media and University of British Columbia to Vancouver Film School and the British Columbia Institute of Technology, talented crew is easy to come by.
“People are extremely generous with their willingness to work on your low-budget project,” says Victoria Angell, writer and director of the horror short “Summoned,” currently making the festival rounds. “I’ve managed to get away with having a lot of volunteers that I can pay back with food, credit and other things.”
The festival culture in BC is rich, with the Vancouver International Film Festival (now in its 35th year) hosting the widest array of East Asian films outside of that region, the Whistler Film Festival at a nearby mountain resort town, and the long-running Vancouver Jewish, Asian and Queer Film Festivals all in their third decade of existence. Since 1999, the Crazy8s Film Society has held an eight-day filmmaking challenge to fund and support short moviemaking; the 7-year-old MPPIA Short Film Award also helps short films get off the ground. Indeed, Angell believes that “there are definitely funds available from more public sources here than in most places in the States.”
Located in a non-tropical rainforest, Vancouver can be rainy, sure, but the climate makes for a lot of lush, otherworldly spaces, like the gorgeously dense, 1,001-acre Stanley Park. Fresh seafood abounds across town, as does particularly excellent Chinese food. And yes, downtown rent can be pricey—but once you earn your Canadian citizenship, free healthcare will offset some of the cost, right?
Big Cities: 3. Los Angeles, California
For anyone moving to Los Angeles, indie moviemaker Lundon Boyd (Dealer, Poor Boy), who moved there from Alaska, offers this advice for keeping your head above water: “Take classes, write more, act more, take every job you can. Never say ‘no’ to a social gathering. Get a smaller vehicle. Already have your reel cut, already have scripts to show. Most people are willing to get a cup of coffee with you. The old cliché of ‘who you know’ really does apply.” In other words, be prepared for networking. Lots of it.
Home to a whopping 430 soundstages and studio facilities, Los Angeles is a prolific provider of jobs for moviemakers and creative folks of all stripes. It’s remarkable how much the endless sprawl can feel like a company town—you’ll find your squad at the gym, in the city’s deep well of restaurants, and of course at the theaters: the Laemmle chain, Downtown Independent, Echo Park Film Center, the raucous Cinefamily and grindhouse-y New Bev, stately American Cinematheque, and so on. And you can join one of the many indie organizations in the city: NewFilmmakers, Filmmakers Alliance or Women in Film…
“I personally love Film Independent,” says Jen McGowan, director of Kelly & Cal and founder of Film Powered, a series of free peer-taught classes for female filmmakers. “I feel very strongly that you must find your people. L.A. is a very spread-out place and it can be very easy to become isolated here, or get distracted and lose your voice.”
As for the moviemaking. California expanded its tax incentive program significantly in 2015, with $330 million now available annually. Be warned, though, that getting your hands on that money isn’t always a walk in the park: The state’s much-decried lottery system was abolished a couple of years ago in favor of a more structured process based on job creation. Many applauded this, but independent moviemakers, allocated just five percent of the subsidies, point out that the job ratio factor favors bigger-budgeted titles—and indeed the minimum spend to qualify is a cool $1 million. (McGowan: “Where filmmakers start their careers is where they build their contacts, and it would be good for L.A. to nurture its filmmakers sooner.”) Indies can take comfort in the fact that while the basic tax credit for larger features is 20 percent, independent features get 25 percent—which, unlike all other categories of production, is transferable.
As anyone who watched La La Land knows, there’s a lot of sunshine (315 days of it, precisely). And though the cost of living is high, Los Angeles doesn’t have to break the bank. Watch beautiful people (and their beautiful dogs) hike Runyon Canyon, or explore an arts scene bursting with underground galleries, comedy shows in taco shops, and alternative music venues in a place where car culture is still king, but the public transit system is increasingly robust. And if you’re savvy about your neighborhood, the city can be—dare we say it—delightfully walkable.
Big Cities: 4. Atlanta, Georgia
It’s home to the busiest airport in the world, but there are lots of reasons to not just pass through. Atlanta, last year’s top Big City, maintains its immense popularity for moviemakers—especially with blockbuster talent. The studio productions that rolled through in 2016 include The Fate of the Furious, Office Christmas Party, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and Hidden Figures, as well as series like The Walking Dead, Star and, of course, Donald Glover’s critically acclaimed new series Atlanta.
You can’t argue with that extremely attractive Georgian tax incentive: a transferable 30 percent with a minimum $500,000 local spend. The nearby Pinewood Studios are also a draw, accommodating full-service production and post-production, including soundstages and offices. Other studios include Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta Metro Studios, and the brand new Third Rail Studios, offering soundstages and a backlot nearby the Antique Row District.
For early-career moviemakers, the breadth of high-profile productions in the city means that a wealth of below-the-line jobs are open. In fact, you might have heard that Atlanta has more movies than crew these days. That’s a rumor Shanna Worsham, a set decoration buyer (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Logan Lucky and currently MacGyver-ing decorations for the TV show of the same name), is a little wary of: “There are a ton of people in the industry in Atlanta, so the rumor that Atlanta is desperate for people isn’t always well-received.” Worsham’s career has certainly grown since moving from L.A. to the less-saturated Atlanta market, though. (She enjoys scouring the city for sets “because there aren’t as many prop houses. It gives you a sense of community to deal with vendors who are grateful for your business.”)
With a cost of living hovering around the country’s average, this is the cheapest option of our top five Big Cities, with plenty of affordable quality housing options. Atlanta is diverse, young and energetic, a city with a rich cultural history. It was, after all, one of the wellsprings of the civil rights movement, and you can visit Martin Luther King Jr’s birthplace. Or pay a visit to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, or hike the BeltLine, a former rail line that has been repurposed into a 22-mile trail. Oh, and the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, the Varsity, is located in downtown Atlanta and somehow sells the equivalent of two miles of hot dogs daily. That could feed a pretty large crew!
Big Cities: 5. Chicago, Illinois
Making a comedy? The streets of Chicago are crawling with improv and sketch comedy performers, many of whom are trained actors, writers and directors specializing in more than just make-’em-ups. The Second City Harold Ramis Film School launched in 2016 purported to be the first comedy moviemaking school in the world (and boasting a starry roster on its board, with names like Apatow, Carell and Odenkirk).
Anna Zorn is a Chicago-based improviser and videographer who likes her city because it “has the best of both worlds”—an intimate film community and big-name projects. In 2016 Chicago saw major players like the 20th Century Fox production The Empty Man and Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, alongside series like NBC’s Chicago line of titles (Fire, Justice, Med and P.D.) and Sense8 from the Chicago-born Wachowskis. On the indie front, there was Seth Savoy’s The Echo Boomers, Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move and the A24 film Slice, starring hometown pride Chance the Rapper. (Yet another hometown talent, Joe Swanberg, set his Netflix show, Easy, around the city.)
The movie houses here have their own distinct character. You’ll find “quirk” at The Music Box Theatre and academic discourse at The Gene Siskel Film Center. Order a pizza to your table at the Vic Theatre’s Brew & View series, which shows cult classics and crowdpleasing second runs in a historic setting. Chicago is a great place to call home—even just for the time it takes to earn a degree at Northwestern University, DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Chicago.
Illinois’ 30 percent tax credit has no cap and low minimum spends ($50,000 for shorts under 30 minutes, $100,000 for longer work). We particularly like Illinois’ requirement that production companies submit a plan to proactively hire diverse crew.
There’s room for improvement, of course, in “a state that flirts with bankruptcy at every turn,” notes Ray Pride, film critic for Chicago weekly Newcity. Pride compiles an annual list called “The Film 50,” spotlighting 50 individuals making waves in Chicago’s film and media community. “We could always use more canny, flush producers to make a larger footprint for venturesome work that reflects this great city.”
Nicole Bernardi-Reis, executive director of IFP Chicago, agrees: “access to capital, decision makers—distributors, production companies, programmers, commissioning editors, etc.—and talent” can be a challenge. Yet “it has become a lot easier in the last few years,” she says, with “a number of incubator programs, angel investment groups and programs that give filmmakers the opportunity to pitch. IFP Chicago launched one last year that we’ll be expanding in 2017.”
And Pride points to Chicago’s wealth of film events: “the world’s longest-running underground event, the Chicago Underground Film Festival; the Chicago International Film Festival, catching a second wind at the age of 53; and Reeling, at 35 the second oldest gay film festival in the world.” The conclusion? “Conversation. Community. Collaboration. It’s all over Chicago.”