6. Chicago, Illinois
“I found Chicago to be invigorating,” says writer-director Travis Stevens, who after building a rep as an indie producer with titles such as Buster’s Mal Heart and Jodorowsky’s Dune, directed his debut horror feature, The Girl on the Third Floor, in 2018. Trendy Chicago suburb Frankfort was chosen as a prominent location due to its “haunted” Victorian-style mansions, one of which the crew made their own. “Having made films in Los Angeles, New York, Louisiana, Montana, Canada, the U.K., and Mexico, I grew accustomed to struggling to find the balance between budget, resource availability, and experience,” Stevens recalls. “Often that balance can handicap the creative vision and become taxing on the crew. The further you travel from cities with a healthy film infrastructure, the cheaper many of your day-to-day costs are, but your access to equipment and experienced crews becomes limited.”
Stevens adds that Chicago and its surrounding environs have struck a balance, nurturing both a robust slate of TV production and a thriving indie film scene, which support each other. “The high-volume needs of a TV production gives a crew and actors experience on high quality sets,” he notes. “They then bring that experience to projects like ours. Many of our crew on The Girl had only been in the business a short time, but they were some of the most competent professionals I’ve had the pleasure to work with.” Stevens also praised Illinois’ film office, firefighters and police, caterers, and merchants who opened their doors to The Girl, calling it a “solid foundation” for the production. “They all made one hell of a case for why the Windy City is such an exciting place to shoot now,” he adds.
The word may be getting out: In early 2018, Film Illinois Director Christine Dudley announced that Chicago’s growth as a film production destination had placed Illinois in the top five states for film and TV production, and acknowledged a chorus of voices calling for Illinois to adopt a tax incentive of Georgia-level generosity, as opposed to the current credits, which are aimed at Illinois residents and geared toward employing locals.
Angie Gaffney, co-founder of film industry incubator Stage 18 Chicago, professes optimism at Chicago’s future: “It’s the right time to be in Chi-town. The city’s film industry has expanded greatly in the past five to ten years,” she says. “It’s incredible to see what a healthy film economy has done to increase quality of life for moviemakers here: Everyone from independents to union workers have seen benefits, and students can transition out of school to the working industry. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.”
7. Toronto, Ontario
Toronto’s film concerns these days are largely high-class, such as not enough stages and square footage to accommodate the demand for production. A major undertaking to revitalize the city’s Port Lands waterfront area that broke ground in early 2018 is tied to an acknowledged need for a bigger footprint for film studios. In early September plans were also unveiled for First Studio City, a 400,000-square-foot production facility in Markham, Ontario (the Greater Toronto area) that will cater to the tentpoles that’ve flocked to central Toronto and Vancouver in recent years. The facility is expected to cost $100 million by 2020 and part of its mandate will be to attract productions from Chinese and Bollywood markets, a sign of the times. Its central attraction will be a 70,000 square-foot stage that will dwarf the 46,500 square-foot stage at Pinewood Toronto Studios.
Ontario’s 21.5 percent film and TV tax credit (and 18 percent animation/VFX credit) continue to be a draw to major players. Some “Hollywood North” products that filmed in Toronto in the fall included the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, the Jessica Chastain-starring horror bookend It: Chapter Two, and Neill Blomkamp’s disaster epic Greenland, starring Chris Evans. Even more is expected in 2019 when CBS Television Studios opens a new 260,000-square-foot production hub in Mississauga, just outside of Toronto. When it opens in summer 2019 it will be comprised of six sound stages, support and auxiliary facilities, and office space. CBS produces 63 series and will use the hub to ramp up TV production for broadcast, cable, and streaming. Disney is also making a push into streaming, and much like Amazon, Apple, Hulu, YouTube and Netflix, they all have eyes for Toronto.
Not to neglect the city’s thriving indie and documentary scene: Mathieu Pierre Dagonas, Executive Director of Documentary Organization of Canada, a non-profit representing Canadian documentarians, tells MovieMaker that documentaries are having a resurgence with Canadian audiences. “The high attendance at Hot Docs and TIFF point to the popularity of the genre,” he notes. “Documentaries are more important than ever in the era of ‘fake news’ as they shine a light on topics of public interest. Audiences want to be informed and to engage with the issues of their city.” He adds that Toronto is “the envy of other production centers in that we have a public funding model and public leaders who’ve shown strength in maintaining Toronto as a production destination. This comes in many forms, whether it’s our tax credits or elected officials going on international missions to promote our talent.
Additionally, some notable indie shoots in the Toronto area in recent months have included a remake of Toronto-born David Cronenberg’s Rabid, helmed by Canadian horror phenoms Jen and Sylvia Soska, and the Bonnie & Clyde-tinged romantic thriller Heavy, from director Jouri Smit. “We’ve had an excellent experience shooting in Toronto,” says Heavy producer David Atrakchi. “One of the challenges was finding our iconic locations to match New York and most importantly match our budget. We felt the city was very busy with bigger shows, leaving little room for an independent film to coexist, but nevertheless we overcame this challenge and managed, through our location manager, to pull phenomenal sets.”
8. Austin, Texas
“We don’t have every piece of the puzzle solved” is how Austin Film Society’s Head of Film and Creative Media Holly Herrick put it to an interviewer in March, summing up Austin’s frustrating mix of a thriving indie film scene and a state that could be doing more, incentive-wise, to support it and attract big fish. Jason Cortlund, co-director (along with Julia Halperin) of the Austin-shot indie thriller Barracuda, offers some perspective: “In terms of film culture, Austin continues to grow as a city for film lovers and moviemakers; Austin Film Society’s development programs and their world-class AFS Cinema are at the heart of that,” he says. “But economically, it’s getting harder every year. State of Texas legislators did a political hit job on the incentive rebates a couple of years ago.”
Although the state provides (through its Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program) for marquee shows like AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, the incentive is down 75 percent from its peak a few years back and some productions are considering other options. “While small-to-mid sized local productions rarely benefitted directly from those limited funds, our regional actors and crew rely on TV and big features to make ends meet,” Cortlund says. “In the two and a half years since we shot Barracuda, a surprisingly large part of our crew moved away for work.” He adds that while he is developing a TV series that’s hopefully filmable in Texas, his next two features will be shot in New England and France.
Sara Seligman, co-writer and director of the forthcoming Austin-shot border thriller Coyote Lake, said that shooting in Bastrop, just outside Austin, meant a dollar that stretched further than expected, somewhat balancing out the incentive issue: “Although we didn’t have access to the tax incentives we were able to save by shooting in Texas, which was amazing because the town [of Bastrop] itself has so much character!” Brian Gannon, director of the Austin Film Commission, also attested to the local color and mentioned Austin’s increasingly storied film history, populated by moviemakers like Richard Linklater and Tobe Hooper who’ve lived and worked in Austin while making movies.
“This continues today,” he said. “Austin’s a great city with strong storytellers living here and crafting independent works that are distinctive and powerful. It’s a welcoming community that’s continuously evolving, with arthouse films being made side by side with Hollywood films, TV series, and commercials. We’ve also worked hard to be sure the state incentives stay competitive so we can keep productions here.” He also noted that Austin’s reputation as an indie haven continues to justify itself, with more than 30 niche film festivals celebrating new work and arthouse theaters like AFS and the Violet Crown Cinema dedicated to exhibiting those films.
9. Montreal, Quebec
Montreal is sometimes referred to as Canada’s “smoking and drinking section,” and if that’s not cosmopolitan enough for you, try this: Since November, physicians of the Médecins francophones du Canada have been in a one-year pilot program that permits them to prescribe visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to patients they believe may benefit from the healing power of art. They might, for instance, take in the abstract paintings of Jean-Paul Riopelle at the MMFA or wander to the Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) before it embarks on its world tour in April 2019.
High art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; you might prefer a stroll through Montreal’s ultra-hip Mile End neighborhood, offering vintage dresses to bagel shops and brewpubs, or a tour of St.-Laurent Boulevard in the Plateau district, which is a scrolling canvas of street art, so much so that mural tours have sprung up in its wake. Montreal also has its own Little Italy, with popular restaurants and wine bars such as the new Mon Lapin (My Rabbit) or the Pizzeria Napoletana, in business since 1948, or you can just grab a maple bacon donut from the Trou de Beigne donut shop.
Is it any wonder the culture vultures at Netflix are putting down roots here? In 2017 the streaming giant made a soft commitment to invest $500 million in Canadian programming over the next five years, as well as to spend $25 million on Francophone content exclusively, and in fall 2018 the company claimed to be on track to exceed that pledge. Netflix’s teen soccer drama 21 Thunder was shot in Montreal last year, while the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston comedy Murder Mystery was shot in the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal borough this summer. The big guns—literally—rolled in during the fall as Roland Emmerich’s war epic Midway began filming in Montreal. Montreal is known as a reliable doubling city, having stood in for New Delhi in The Day After Tomorrow and as Saigon (with CGI palm trees) for X-Men: Days of Future Past.
10. Memphis, Tennessee
“Memphis is funky,” says Emmy and Grammy-winning writer and moviemaker Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash’s America). “Its people are funky. You can get the L.A. feel in Nashville, but in Memphis anything you make will have an edge to it. It’s a down to Earth place generally, and pretense should be checked at the door. The crews are like the city: real, kind of gritty, don’t mind getting dirty, but they clean up nicely, too. Also, the Indie Memphis Film Festival is not to be missed. Nearly all of it happens within three blocks of screens, bars, and food; offbeat programming that nods to the region and has an international flavor.”
The edgy programming of The Indie Memphis Film Festival is also paired with curation and programming policies that reflect a social consciousness; the festival’s commitment to supporting black moviemakers was honored in 2018 with the introduction of the Black Creator’s Forum, a symposium of speaker panels and workshops with prominent black moviemakers, artists, and critics to engage on a variety of subjects. The two-day event culminated in a showcase in which moviemakers could pitch projects to attendees.
Gordon credits the run of Memphis-set John Grisham films in the 1990s as laying down an infrastructure that has prepared the city for crews of any size ever since, and notes, “A lot of the city still looks like the 1960s,” except for the cars. If that sounds like a romantic place to film your next project, know that producers are offered a 25 percent grant on local spend, including expenditures, and minimum spend is $200,000.
“Memphis is a great place to shoot,” Gordon continues. “As a location, you can find streets to match most any era, and most any condition. Also, the crews are skilled, eager and flexible. People I’ve worked with (on non-union shoots) are ready to do what’s needed, even if it means duties not normally assigned. They’re innovative and ready to try, and if you treat people right, they’ll go the extra mile, delivering you images you’d never have imagined. A friend of mine says, ‘Memphis is the town where nothing happens but the impossible always does.’”