Small Cities and Towns: 1. Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is the returning champion of our Small Cities and Towns list—not bad for a population of just 145,674!

Dare we say that its ascendance this year was even more emphatic than before? For one, an impressive armada of features took to the cobblestone streets (lined by giant oak trees covered with Spanish moss). On the major side, there was Paramount’s Baywatch, the TV sensation-turned-blockbuster; on the indie side the list goes on: Lizzie, with Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie Borden; horror film Mara with Olga Kurylenko; John Cusack thriller Misfortune; the William H. Macy-directed Krystal; comedies The Divorce Party and Coup D’etat… Elsewhere, in the TV realm, Underground shot its second season, and Tyler Perry’s Savannah-set soap opera The Haves and the Have Nots shot its fifth season, among other scripted and reality shows. All told, that’s $62 million in estimated expenditure.

Beth LaMure’s indie drama Daisy Winters, starring Sterling Jerins (in tree) and Brooke Shields, in Savannah. Courtesy of Daisy Winters the Film, LLC

That figure shouldn’t surprise, considering Georgia’s whopping 30 percent tax credit—and the fact that Savannah moviemakers now receive an additional 10 percent local rebate for their projects, and even relocation incentives for crew. According to Beth Nelson, executive director of the Savannah Area Film Office, “The Savannah Entertainment Production Rebate Incentive has had tremendous success during its first year, exceeding expectations.” A TV series and several feature films utilize the incentive, Nelson reports, and the annual cap was reached in November.

With this flurry of activity, it’s no wonder the City of Savannah Film Office expanded in 2016 to become the Savannah Area Film Office, with added staff and a new website, covering multiple municipalities in Chatham County.

Local moviemaker Samone Norsworthy (producer and director of My Brother’s Keeper) says you can make a living here once you tap into the intimate film circle. “I’m proof positive of that statement—I returned to my hometown of Savannah from L.A. four years ago and have been working here consistently ever since. It’s a tight community; we look out for one another.”

Last year’s opening of the Georgia Film Academy through Savannah Technical College established GFA’s fourth location in the state. For now, though, Savannah College of Art and Design, and its companion annual Savannah Film Festival, are the institutions that largely dominate the landscape, and deservedly so—the school lends its students truly state-of-the-art spaces, and the fest puts the town’s gorgeous and historic movie theaters to good use. And while the infrastructure admittedly isn’t as extensive as in larger moviemaking cities, production services and rental companies like Savannah Film Company and the new branch of High Output, and studio facilities like Savannah Film Factory and the recently opened River Oaks Film Studios, are holding down the fort.

Blank slate: on the set of Craig William Macneill’s film Lizzie in Savannah. Photograph by Katie Schuck

Yes, you’re thinking, but what about the lifestyle? We’re happy to report that it’s as charming as you’d hope: the beautiful vistas come alive with food and music festivals, farmers markets and outdoor sports. Norsworthy puts it this way: “Savannah is addictive. Staying focused can be difficult when surrounded by such amazing people and scenery. And weight gain is likely.”

Small Cities and Towns: 2. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Moving up from last year’s fourth place to a strong second, the city of Santa Fe placed a concerted emphasis on moviemaking in 2016. While Savannah expanded its preexisting local commission, the New Mexico town established a brand new one: the Santa Fe Film Office, a joint city/county office with a full-time staff and additional contract employees which opened in March, 2016.

The move is a ringing endorsement of Santa Fe’s big-screen potential, and coincided with a wave of big productions. Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, with Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi, was shot among the red rocks of the nearby 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch. Jessica Chastain plays the real-life woman who met with Native American leader Sitting Bull in the 19th century in Woman Walks Ahead. Other buzzy titles rounding out the pack were Granite Mountain, Villa Capri, Ideal Home, Cliffs of Freedom, Titan and Justice—a veritable star-studded bonanza.

Why is half of Hollywood decamping to the second smallest town in these pages (population 70,000)? Beyond an uptick in neo-Westerns, perhaps, it’s likely for that excellent New Mexico refundable tax credit of up to 30 percent (and the lack of a minimum spend to qualify for the incentive is pretty indie-friendly). The production and post resources befit a much bigger city, from MBS Equipment at Santa Fe Studios to Garson Studios at Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), housing the largest permanent green screen in the state.

Make good friends within the industry in order to have the very best crew members possible,” suggests Smoke Signals and Edge of America director Chris Eyre, who’s also on the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival advisory board, “because everyone wants them in New Mexico!” He believes that moviemakers can have a “very good lifestyle here, by networking and participating as a crew member for other television and film happening all around the state. The New Mexico community is not massive, so relationships mean more.”

A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin owns the local Jean Cocteau Cinema, which he says he wants to make “important a part of Santa Fe’s future: the most eclectic and unpredictable venue in town, with its mix of films old and new, large and small, author readings, book signings, live music, comedy, burlesque, magic shows and karaoke.” Indeed, beyond cinema, Santa Fe is famously arts-focused. The UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Arts teems with museums, galleries and jewelry shops, plus the world-class Santa Fe Opera and acclaimed Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Cart blanche: Indie features like Odd Thomas get full creative control in Santa Fe. Photograph by Don Gray

Acclaimed Hawaii-born underground moviemaker Jon Moritsugu now calls New Mexico home. He loves the fact that there are “mainstream as well as total scuzzball productions always going off.” But more than that, he says, “there is something sublime about the space out here. I’ve done my best writing and filmmaking in Santa Fe and I know it’s because of what ‘isn’t here.’”

Eyre concurs: The place is just plain inspiring. “It is really still an untapped place for storytellers in America to discover.” Just don’t forget to figure out how you like your chiles: red, green or Christmas.

Small Cities and Towns: 3. Providence, Rhode Island

Providence has always acquitted itself admirably in the film education area. Its environs in the country’s smallest state are getting even better: A new multi-million-dollar media hub at The Rhode Island Harrington School of Media opened in 2016 at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, adding to Providence’s programs at the Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University and other schools.

Little Rhode Island offers a significant tax incentive, too—25 percent credit with a $100,000 minimum spend. Of the titles that capitalized on that, a couple features made it to Sundance: Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s The Polka King, starring Jack Black and Jenny Slate, and Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery, starring Rooney Mara, Jason Segel and Robert Redford, which shot in Newport and Middletown as well as Providence.

Martin Scorsese addresses guests digitally at the Oscar Night America 2016 event in Providence. Courtesy of the Rhode Island Film & TV Office

Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Film & TV Office, has amassed a collection of letters over his 13 years in that position, from filmmakers praising the state’s lovely coastlines, its historic preservation, even its lemonade (Del’s). A highlight of his 2016, though, was a note he got from Redford: “While leaving, he sent me a letter and asked me to share it with the Rhode Island community via a local newspaper.” In it, the actor writes that “For me, the welcoming and warm spirit of the community will not soon be forgotten.”

Feinberg was moved: “We are so proud of this letter because he recognized the beauty of our state and our hospitality.” It’s an endorsement that’s hard to argue with.

Small Cities and Towns: 4. New Orleans, Louisiana

Louisiana’s tax incentives have suffered a recent blow, but New Orleans is so much more than a number. The venerable New Orleans Film Society remains a leader in the local industry, with its annual New Orleans Film Festival lighting up the fall. And the city’s extensive production infrastructure is still ripe for an indie moviemaker’s picking.

“Vendors are here to allow you access to resources on short notice that would normally be outside of the independent filmmaker’s reach,” says local moviemaker Paavo Hanninen, who’s in post-production on his short “Tourist” and in production on a feature-length documentary. “For ‘Tourist,’ we needed to purchase a few extra rolls of 16mm film before shooting began, and the Panavision office here is an on-call pickup location for Kodak, allowing us to order and pick up the film the same day.”

And when it comes to the “living” part of the equation, with its rich cultural history, the alligator jambalaya, the oversized daiquiris on Bourbon Street, and all that jazz, what’s not to love about the Big Easy?

Easy street: a commercial shoots in New Orleans. Courtesy of Film New Orleans

Hanninen loves “the amazing culture of creativity and diversity that has been built up here for 300 years. People say this all the time, but there really is nowhere else like this in America, and nowhere else that leaves others with such a mixture of wonder and envy when you tell them you live here.”

Grab a beignet (but order your hurricane to go). As comedian Hannibal Buress once noted, you can even throw yourself a second line parade to celebrate once you’re officially a NOLA resident.

Small Cities and Towns: 5. Richmond, Virginia

With a city population close to 200,000, Richmond is no hamlet. Equal parts Southern charm and East Coast refinement, a quick day trip can land you on the beach, in the mountains or in the rolling countryside. Episodic production is bustling, with AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies and PBS’ Mercy Street among the series made here in 2016.

Richmond is home to vibrant public art projects, a burgeoning gastronomic scene as well as independent movie theatres like the Bijou Film Center and The Byrd Theatre—“an architectural jewel built in 1928,” notes Peg Crowder, executive assistant at the Virginia Production Alliance. And as with many of the cities listed here, it’s got a wealth of top educational programs for film, including three at Virgnia Commonwealth University College of the Arts, the top-ranked public university arts and design program in the country.

The result, says Crowder, is “a measured rush of filmmaking over the years, inspiring local support for filmmakers without creating the burned-out feeling larger cities radiate.”

Below, check out an immersive experience as a Civil War soldier at Mansion House Hospital after the Second Battle of Bull Run with Mercy Street’s “A Letter Home” in 360°, shot entirely at Laburnum House in Richmond.

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