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The Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2019: Big Cities

The Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2019: Big Cities

Best Places to live and work as a moviemaker

Annual Lists

16. San Diego, California

Do you feel the need for speed? San Diego is back in the headlines, particularly its Miramar Marine base, once the location of the Navy’s TOPGUN training program. With Tom Cruise being spotted in San Diego through the fall as Top Gun: Maverick got underway, who could blame even local film officials for being excited? “It was very exciting to welcome Paramount back to San Diego for the sequel,” San Diego Film Liaison Brandy Shimabukuro tells MovieMaker. “Given what an icon the original is and its San Diego roots, it felt like a homecoming. Oftentimes, productions of this size are measured solely by economic impact—and with good reason—since a cast and crew of about 250 lived and worked in San Diego for nearly six weeks, but the reality is that hosting major productions like this isn’t just an economic boon, it helps bolster civic pride. We look forward to seeing our hometown on the silver screen in June 2020.”

Fighter jets or no, San Diego appears to be making strides to reassert itself as a player in the film production arena after budget cuts in 2013 went unaddressed for a couple of years. In 2015 mayor Kevin Faulconer hired a filming program manager, streamlined permitting and established online directories of local crew, but the building blocks of a deeply staffed and resourced Film Office are still falling into place. In July it was reported that a dormant 180,000 square-foot recycling facility in the city’s San Elijo Hills—45 minutes closer to L.A. than downtown—could be converted into a production facility, but what is needed is more coordination with local producers and local subsidies. A consultancy tasked by the site owners is reaching out to the city council.

Faulconer tells us that the official reestablishment of the Film Office in 2015 wasn’t just a statement to say they were open for business: “It was a message to the world that while San Diego may be the industry’s best-kept secret, it won’t be for long.” He also cites some of the cultural qualities that SD has to offer, from its history of promoting film, photography, and other arts to its binational location. “It’s a dynamic environment for anyone looking to tell their story,” he says.

best places

Courtesy of San Diego Regional Film Commission

17. Dallas, Texas

“When filming in Dallas, you actually get two cities in one: Dallas and Fort Worth, and they are very different from one another,” says Liz Cardenas, producer of 2017’s acclaimed A Ghost Story and the 2018 comedy Never Goin’ Back. “You also get several unique neighborhoods and communities within and just outside of the DFW Metroplex. In my experience, both film commissions were extremely helpful with locations, as well as our various production needs, Fort Worth on Never Goin’ Back and Dallas on A Ghost Story.”

Cardenas says that Texas being a right-to-work state is also beneficial for low-budget indie moviemaking and that Dallas is a very commercial city, so there is a surplus of friendly and skilled crew members who work regularly and maintain an open mind when it comes to choosing projects even if they are low-budget. “For instance, on A Ghost Story I literally went door to door in the neighborhood and surrounding area to try to find a place we could use for ‘holding’ and sure enough, a very kind woman let us use her home,” she recalls. “I also got the wrecked car Casey Affleck’s character is in for free and a towing company took it to the set and back to the salvage yard for free when we were done.”

Augustine Frizzell, director of Never Goin’ Back, echoes Cardenas’ sentiments, particularly on the Dallas-Fort Worth nexus. “The Fort Worth and Dallas Film commissions both stepped in and worked to help us find authentic and accessible locations,” Frizzell says. “We had an embarrassment of riches with regards to the hardworking, professional crew. Given the budget level and the look I was going for, there’s no way we could’ve shot my film anywhere else.” 

Cardenas adds that going the extra mile on Never Goin’ Back meant a business allowing them to shoot at their location for free or at a discount in exchange for “letting their kid be an extra in the movie.” 

Another group to watch in Dallas is the entertainment company Cinestate, which bought horror brand Fangoria in 2018 and is building a new movie brand with a reimagining of the Puppet Master franchise, among other things. They recently wrapped on horror feature Satanic Panic, with Blumhouse alum Chelsea Stardust directing. “In terms of bang for your buck, there’s no better place to make a movie than Dallas,” says Cinestate VP Amanda Presmyk. “We’re able to stretch every dollar to make a movie that looks beyond its budget because of our home-field advantage.” She adds that having a talented crew base went a long way to achieving their mutual goal: “Satanic Panic’s budget was under a million and it’s a perfect example of what we’re building with Cinestate/Fangoria. We want to satisfy audiences who crave entertaining, boundary-pushing movies and we believe awesome movies don’t have to cost a fortune.”

Star Maia Mitchell (C) and the crew of the Spirit Award-nominated indie Never Goin’ Back film on their Dallas-bound set. Courtesy of Liz Cardenas

18. San Francisco, California

Back in September visionary director Darren Aronofsky and French artist JR teamed up to create art where you might least expect it: projected onto the exterior of San Francisco’s City Hall. A black and white film clip of a group of people silently turning their heads, the film, entitled The Standing March, was intended to remind governments that the people are “watching” them on the subject of climate change. The projected film also served as publicity for the Global Climate Action Summit, which took place in San Francisco around the same time.

Earlier in the summer the Netflix comedy Always Be My Maybe, starring Ali Wong and Keanu Reeves, took over San Francisco’s Richmond District and was said to be shooting at the Fairmont Hotel, Golden Gate Park, the Palace of Fine Arts and other iconic SF locations. Around the same time in the Bay Area, Brad Pitt’s Plan B shingle and A24 (two entities that collaborated on Moonlight) began filming The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a drama about race and gentrification with Danny Glover and Thora Birch. In October another Netflix production, the 10-part LGBTQ-themed drama miniseries Tales of the City filmed in the streets of SF and will debut sometime in 2019. 

Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man In San Francisco. Photograph by Peter Prato, courtesy of Sundance Institute and A24

19. Houston, Texas

With the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program having been whittled down to $22 million in 2017, the state isn’t doing much to promote Houston’s ambitions of being a top film production player. Not that Houston’s residents are waiting around; the spirit of DIY moviemaking is strong here. The city also has a film-positive Mayor, Sylvester Turner, who last year hosted a Film and Entertainment Summit with the goal of luring Hollywood players to Houston. More green shoots: The Sam Houston Southwest Film Investment Fund pledged last year to build six studio lots and production offices in the Houston area before 2020. Then there’s Houston’s population of working indie moviemakers who swear by their city.

“I live in Houston, and from the start I wanted my script to showcase the hometown that I love,” says writer-director Scott Brignac about his feature debut, Playing God, which shot over the summer. “Houston has a charm and personality that’s underrated. It’s a huge city with many locations and everyone is welcoming to moviemakers. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to shoot my first feature. One of my favorite days on set was shooting on a rooftop with Michael McKean and Alan Tudyk—I loved every minute of it, the energy of the city, the vibe and the architecture, and then to watch them deliver great performances, mixed with the backdrop of downtown Houston was honestly magical.”

best places

Moviemakers Scott Brignac (R) and Cody Bess (L) during the final day of production on their 2018 Houston-shot feature, Playing God. Courtesy of Instagram

20. San Antonio, Texas

Spanish-speaking settlers first grouped around the San Antonio River in 1718, establishing a mission and a fort. The city that’s evolved over 300 years is a dense tapestry of Mexican-American, as well as German and other immigrant group influences and a cultural treasure all its own. Along the banks of the San Antonio River today you’ll find the River Walk, a city park with a network of walkways linking restaurants, historic Spanish missions and art installations, all testifying to centuries of history. 

The city’s spirit of steady, constant improvement is reflected in its Film Commission, which is known as a reliable resource, able to secure permits, access and resources for moviemakers, and currently heading into year three the San Antonio Film Commission Strategic Plan, a five-year blueprint adopted in late 2016 to turn San Antonio into a thriving film production hub. (The city provides a local supplement for qualified productions, 7.5 percent on top of the state tax credit). We asked San Antonio Film and Music Commissioner Krystal Jones for an update on what had been accomplished since the plan was implemented:

“Once it passed, The San Antonio Film Commission immediately began implementing the strategic plan, developing more user-friendly online resources, a free and turnkey film permit process, and providing access to city brands and locations,” Jones says. “With increased marketing highlighting the plan and our message of San Antonio as a film-friendly city, a very successful 2018 included two projects qualifying for our local incentive, an increase in film projects and film days, film being a component in our city’s tricentennial celebration, and workshops and grants provided to moviemakers.” She adds that the plan is ongoing, with an open door for partnerships as the Film Commission continues to act as “an extension of production teams and an advocate for the film community.”

Courtesy of the San Antonio Film Commission


A complete version of this two-part article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2019 issue, on stands February 6, 2019. Featured image illustration by Laura Breiling. 

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  1. Bruce says:

    Meh. If you want to work as a filmmaker – meaning getting paid for your work, and working consistently – you’re still better off in Los Angeles or New York. Or Atlanta, which has done great work in positioning itself as a hub where production professionals can work steadily.

    This is not to say that the other cities on the list don’t have thriving film scenes (as an ex Austinite with many friends in the Austin and San Antonio film communities, I am well aware that much talent and passion exists all over the country), but unless you want to make your income primarily from, say, car dealership commercials, you’re better off in ATL, NYC or LA.

    (Not that there’s anything wrong with doing car dealership commercials, btw! The tone of the article suggests that we’re primarily talking about feature film and TV work, though)

    • Jon says:

      .Arrogant ass. Our crews are THE BEST and would kick ass over any orher city’s production team(s). What an idiot.

      • ANTI-SNARK says:

        Jon, you come off just as arrogant! Our crews are very good but many have left NM for NYC. Your war cry makes us look bad. Back off and let our work do the talking!

      • Lamont says:

        Jon, seems like you’re the arrogant ass. Bruce was only being truthful about the best production cities. At the end of the day, there’s plenty of talented crews in the states mentioned. What have you done that’s “so called” better than other crews? Grow up. The TX tax incentives suck and there’s really not any productions going on in the state. Only Robert Rodriguez movies, who is an awesome filmmaker. How about you move to where the action really is and prove yourself??? You’re immature ego is ridiculous.

    • Anne says:

      This is such a snobby ignorant comment. I’ll agree that New York has the best rates, it’s easy to move up, and there’s constant work. Los Angeles rates are lower and not worth the cost of living or traffic. New Orleans, Atlanta, and Albuquerque are great options if you want steady work, a lower cost of living, and a less stressful city overall. I came up through New Orleans and never worked on a car commercial. Baltimore was hot for a bit, but I think died down after House of Cards ended. I think the Atlanta and Albuquerque crews impressed me the most with the friendly personalities and work ethic to match.

  2. Alex C. says:

    Absolutely stunned that this compilation left out Cleveland, Ohio–where many comic book block busters have been made in recent years. Cleveland has a wonderful, hard-working Film Commission, and a significant tax credit. Plus there is a great talent base there, the people are friendly, and cost of living is relatively low. What more can you ask for?

  3. Outside of the top 10 or 11 noted here, the rest are generally considered “locations”, not production centers. A city must have significant production infrastructure to be a production center. Most don’t have that. Moreover, the “deals” will still be made in Los Angeles and New York. Carnahan is just wishin’ and hopin’.

  4. Very interesting. Did you only consider the Americas in this survey?

  5. j says:

    This is for Bruce…

    If you’re new or just entering this industry LA and NY are the last places you want to go… that is unless you want to either a) edit for a porn house or b) work at a red Lobster to survive while to wait your turn to get in behind a million others wanting to do the same thing. As for Altanta- good luck with that. How ya gonna network with people? It’s so sprawled out your chances of running into another industry person at a restaurant, bar or other social atmosphere is right up there with being struck by lightning. As for Texas, it’s not a film hub state. Ontario you say? Well, might as well be in Atlanta. Not only is New Mexico a thriving production hub, it’s a MAJOR incentive state, so much so Netflix outright purchased Albuquerque Studios just a few months ago. Aside from that few major studio executives want to travel to Atlanta. On the other hand Santa Fe is a luxury city, just 1.5 hr flight from LA, and major studio executives make excuses to visit and that leads me to networking. Santa Fe while being posh it really quaint. Literally every time I’ve visited, stayed at a hotel, visited a bar, or just grabbed a coffee I’ve met someone in the industry. Next, less competition… in New Mexico there is high demand for crew and not always enough crew available, making it easier for someone to break in. For those of us that have a strong personal network it doesn’t matter where you live because your network keeps you gainfully employed. So starve in LA and NY with a high cost of living, or start working, networking and learning in a place like New Mexico?

    • Gabrielle says:

      Hey J, I really appreciate this because I never would have thought to look in New Mexico. I will definitely start my search. I do love California, but maybe once I actually have connections I’ll then consider moving.

      Thanks again!

  6. Mike Thomas Leghorn says:

    LOL Cinestate in Dallas – “Dallas has the most bang for the buck”
    However they only shoot their micro budget films in Dallas. Anything with a decent budget goes out of state to an incentive based area.

  7. BeepBop says:

    So are we talking mostly production crew jobs for these cities? What about post-production? Seems like a lot of productions are still farming out the post work to post houses back in LA, including overnighting dailies back and forth via FedEx.

  8. I have been acting for 10 years in independent movies. I would love to go to Albuquerque. Currently live in Tucson.

    • Joeseph, then do it! This industry does not favor the meek, you need to get on it! There will never be a “good time” to move, you have to decide what your priorities are, pack your stuff and get in the car. A super easy (and beautiful) drive from Tucson.

  9. CorVatta says:

    Twelve years ago I wanted to break into film, originally from New Mexico, at the time I was living in Las Vegas. (Side note – Not Las Vegas New Mexico where much of Longmire was filmed but Las Vegas Nevada, where the hookers have teeth and wear heels.)

    At the time I moved from Vegas LA to pursue film only to find out filming was becoming popular in my home state, thanks to Governor Richardson and other advocates. So I moved back where I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Networking was easier and immediately started working and haven’t stopped since. Recently a group of producers and I purchased a studio building and will shoot our first collective feature this fall.

    The New Mexico film community is also the most inclusive I have ever experienced. As a gay/trans Actor/Comedian, Producer my film family has helped foster my authentic self. I am thankful to have moved back and get in on the ground floor.

    With very little natural disasters, no gridlock traffic, beautiful locations, amazing food and film friendly people, New Mexico is the place to be and you’ll love free time in Santa Fe.

  10. Melani says:

    I can personally say there is no work in Philadelphia. The very few films that film here use outside hires. Unless you want a job at a news station, I’d look elsewhere.

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