Before we begin our latest list of the Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker: Some obvious background.
The COVID pandemic continues to rage on two years after the virus landed on American shores, and one of the few silver linings has been a revolution in telecommuting — giving us all more freedom than ever before to live and work where we want, how we want.
The movie industry is no exception. Post-production coordinators are managing workflow between editors and animators from the comfort of their own homes, and the writers’ room may also be a bedroom. Production, however, can’t always be facilitated through Zoom calls. So for on-set crew, producers, and directors, it remains essential to be close to someone yelling “Action!”
Fortunately, there is no shortage of production hubs springing up in cities, big and small, around North America. And a few — like Albuquerque and Atlanta — are even shaping up to rival MovieMaker Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker Hall of Famers Los Angeles and New York. Dozens of other municipalities are nipping at their heels with very attractive tax incentives and infrastructure development, luring more projects to previously overlooked areas.
Let’s dive into the evolving filmmaking landscape across the continent, starting with America’s iconic entertainment capitals. These are the Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker in 2022.
Hall of Fame
There’s not much to say about L.A. that hasn’t already been said. It’s a great place to live — if you can afford the rising rent or ridiculous home prices, enjoy the liberal approach to policy, and don’t mind daily traffic jams. The pandemic shut down a city built on the back of the entertainment industry, and now mandates require proof of vaccination to do pretty much anything indoors, so within the last two years, a lot of people moved to other areas of the country where live entertainment and production continued, for better or worse, in the age of COVID. But millions have stayed, and a lot of new residents with big dreams of making it in the City of Angels have brought fresh energy.
Why stay, and why come? We reached out to Detroit Rock City and The Last Movie Star filmmaker Adam Rifkin to ask just that, and he gave a very thoughtful answer in return that deserves to be printed in full:
“I grew up in Chicago, which, don’t get me wrong, is a fabulous city. But my dream for as long as I can remember was to move to Hollywood and make movies. Los Angeles is synonymous with film and film history. When I arrived I was awestruck by all of the movie studios, famous locations and celebrities I would see everywhere I looked.
“I suppose it’s easy for some to get numb to it after you’ve lived here for a while. Driving past Paramount Studios on your way to the supermarket. But to this day I am continually reminded of the city’s cinematic history. You can smell it in the air. Every crack in the sidewalk seems to have a connection to an old film or a forgotten movie star. I have made movies in a variety of cities around the globe, but I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Living in Los Angeles is living in the cradle of the industry I fantasized about being a part of since my father gifted me his Sears Super-8 movie camera when I was seven years old. Hollywood is a city but it is also a mythology. A magical fantasy. A living dream. And yes, a dream is a mere sigh away from becoming a nightmare. Many tears have been shed around this town. They’ve been watering the soil for generations, adding more lush green to this transient desert mirage. As Nathanael West wrote in his ode to those on the fringes of Hollywood in his 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, ‘Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.’
“And if there’s one commodity that trumps the almighty dollar in Hollywood, it’s hope. Not everybody in this town has money, but everyone has hope. After all the years I’ve lived here, you’d think I might be more cynical about it, but just the opposite. I still believe anything is possible in this city of dreams. Incidentally, the film version of The Day of the Locust was shot on the Paramount lot. I just drove by it on my way to the supermarket. How cool is that?!”
New York City
The local film and TV industry reached an all-time high in 2019, with approximately 185,000 jobs, $18.1 billion in wages, and $81.6 billion in total economic output. Then the pandemic hit. But data released by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) last summer revealed that New York City bounced back in a big way, because that’s what New York City always does.
Overall production has reached pre-pandemic levels, with at least 34 projects filming on the ground throughout the five boroughs by the end of August 2021. At the time of this writing, as 2021 turns to 2022, MOME lists 74 more TV and film projects getting to work in the area recently, including the HBO hit Succession, Showtime’s Billions, and NBC’s New Amsterdam, plus upcoming Netflix rom-com Your Place or Mine, starring Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher.
The Big Apple, like other cities on this list, is a beneficiary of Netflix’s continued expansion. The streaming giant opened a 170,000-square-foot studio last September in Brooklyn, with six sound stages, as well as editing suites, meeting rooms and a commissary. The sound stages have enough space to film two TV shows at the same time, or one blockbuster movie. Additionally, companies like Broadway Stages, Steiner Studios, and Kaufman Astoria are in construction on new facilities that will further add to NYC’s existing 1.5 million square feet of sound stages, expand employment opportunities, and generate more dollars for the local businesses, like restaurants, that will benefit from increased foot traffic in these areas.
As many Americans continue to debate vaccines, one factor that may encourage more filmmakers to move to NYC, or turn them off entirely, is former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-in-the-nation vaccine mandate for private private-sector workers. The “Key to NYC” program applies to roughly 184,000 businesses, requiring proof of vaccination for both employees and patrons for indoor dining, fitness, entertainment and performance venues.
MOME’s comprehensive NYC Film and Television Industry Economic Impact Study 2021 also revealed another awesome fact about this production hub: Approximately 85% of filmmaking is independent, meaning that production is not funded by one of the industry’s major studios. The statistic is reflective of the creative and collaborative moviemaking community that thrives in New York, and will continue to for years to come. The enduring growth of the local industry proves it’s never a bad time to join the party.
25. Fort Worth
The fifth-largest city in Texas, with a population of 938,055, makes our list for the first time ever. Why now, you ask? Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan returned to his home state when he bought a ranch outside Fort Worth in 2020, and he brought a good chunk of the television industry with him. 1883, a spinoff of his hugely popular Paramount+ series Yellowstone, started filming in the Fort Worth area last August, and it’s a safe bet that it will keep filming locally for seasons to come, considering Yellowstone is currently cable’s most-watched show. Of course, that’s not all that’s happening in this city. Taylor Hardy, associate film commissioner, tells MovieMaker that commercials for clients including Toyota, NFL, Penske, and Wrangler shot in the area this past year, as well as the Michael Chiklis football drama The Senior.
Texas has seen the arrival of many new residents in these pandemic years, particularly former Californians who came for cheaper homes and taxes. There’s plenty to love about the area. Fort Worth has a fantastic live music scene, a thriving cultural district, and traditional Texas fun like year-round rodeo and the world’s largest honky-tonk. But according to Sheridan, what newcomers will really appreciate is their neighbors. “There’s a kindness in Texas that I find lacking in many other parts of the country,” Sheridan said in a 2020 interview with Cowboys & Indians Magazine. “Anywhere you go in Texas, there is a genuine concern for another person’s well-being. I just think it creates a structure of society that is very harmonious. I’ve got a lot of people that fly in to meet with me from California or New York or whatever, and the first thing they say to me is, ‘I can’t believe how friendly everybody is. Everybody’s friendly and everybody’s so happy. I don’t understand it.’ It’s like, well, they’re happy because they live in Texas and they’re friendly because they’re happy.”
Another reason to be happy: no income tax! But, on the flip side, that hinders the state’s ability to be as competitive as several other states in offering lucrative income tax credits on film and television productions. The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program offers between five and 22.5% cash back rebates, depending on the budget, for qualifying in-state expenditures. Filmmakers also benefit from up-front sales tax exemptions, refunds on fuel tax, and state occupancy tax on hotel rooms.
24. St. Petersburg
“Film production came back in a big way in 2021,” St. Petersburg film commissioner Tony Armer tells MovieMaker.
The Gulf Coast city that sits across the bay from Tampa moves up one spot from last year, as it continues to attract feature film and television productions, despite Florida not having an incentive program. “Around 1,800 production companies that produced motion pictures, made-for-television motion pictures, television series, commercial advertising, music videos and sound recordings in Florida benefitted from the state’s entertainment industry sales and use tax exemption on certain production-related purchases in Florida,” Armer explains.
About $21 million was spent in the area on productions last year, like A Taste of Love, starring Martin Kove (Cobra Kai) and Erin Cahill, and Hallmark Channel feature South Beach Love, and a string of features shot-back-to-back at the end of the year for Lifetime Network. The area also attracted Netflix and Amazon Prime reality TV show productions, like Buying the Bay and Tampa Baes. “These films, though small, provide a great training ground for young crew, new crew looking to get their start, or crew members looking to move to other departments,” Armer says. “The films provide opportunities for local actors and businesses to get their feet wet in the industry.” With plenty of warmth, sunshine, and beaches, St. Pete has many of the same draws as Los Angeles, and offers a lot of cultural touchstones, as well: several film festivals, ten museums, dozens of art galleries, performing arts venues, and a vibrant mural collection spread throughout the city. Plus, the area is bursting at the seams with talented local musicians who fill venues with music all over St. Pete almost every night.
23. Washington D.C.
You don’t have to be a politician to enjoy living and working in the nation’s capital. Every year, film and television productions shoot in D.C. for the iconic scenery and landmarks no other locale can duplicate. Recent high-profile Washington productions include Columbia Pictures’ A Journal for Jordan, starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams, and Adam McKay’s Netflix film Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, and Jonah Hill (which also shot heavily in Boston).
On the TV side, the city welcomed the Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux HBO drama The White House Plumbers, and Ryan Murphy’s FX drama Impeachment: American Crime Story, starring Clive Owen and Sarah Paulson.
Though the city is better known for political theater, it offers cinephiles six independent movie theaters, plus nine film festivals, in addition to a fine array of restaurants, performing arts venues, museums, and other cultural touchstones. A safe, reliable network of public transportation makes for easy commuting into the city from one of the surrounding suburbs, including Alexandria, Reston and Arlington in Virginia, and Frederick, Silver Spring, Gaithersburg, Rockville and Bethesda in Maryland.
22. San Antonio
Krystal Jones, the interim executive director of the San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture, tells MovieMaker that 177 permits were issued for productions locally in 2021, including for the next documentary from Oscar- nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague), who is taking an inside look at the massive global race to research, develop, regulate and roll out COVID vaccines. Additionally, some scenes from Danny Boyle’s upcoming Pistol, a six-episode limited series about punk band Sex Pistols, was shot in this walkable city in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, with a celebrated culinary scene, a vibrant creative culture, and more than 300 years of history. “Where other cities might have a skyline or neighborhoods that change with the times, San Antonio is thoughtful with development, which results in a city filled with locations for every time period,” Jones says, adding that the seventh-largest city in the country has “a scene for every story, both urban and rural.”
Filmmakers can find work on a plethora of reality and documentary television shows shooting in the area, and then take advantage of more than 250 parks, libraries, and historic locations to shoot their own projects, because permits for city-owned properties are issued free of charge — part of the city’s Film Strategic Plan to ensure San Antonio is one of the most film-friendly cities in the country.
Jones noticed organizations hiring local filmmakers for livestream events after the pandemic shut down in-person gatherings, and is happy to report that organizations continue to utilize locals to document in-person events.
“At the same time, we noticed once again this year that the size and caliber of film productions inquiring about and coming to San Antonio continues to increase, resulting in San Antonio cast, crew and support services benefiting economically,” Jones tells MovieMaker. “What I look forward to is the blend of these two trends, content demand from local businesses and organizations as well as incoming productions — especially what this means for the San Antonio cast and crew that make film happen.”
This famously progressive city may have moved down a spot on our list this year to accommodate emerging and expanding film markets around the country, but that doesn’t make it any less of an ideal community to be a part of as a filmmaker, especially if animation is your specialty. “Our animation industry is one of the strongest in the world outside of L.A.,” Brian Lord, manager of the Portland Film Office, tells MovieMaker. Award-winning feature film animation studio LAIKA (Coraline) is in the area, along with ShadowMachine (BoJack Horseman), and branded-content specialist Deep Sky.
“It’s a great West Coast city with access to everything, but it’s not big in the same way that New York or Los Angeles or Chicago is,” Alex Bulkley, co-founder of ShadowMachine, said in an interview with Portland Monthly. “There’s an intimacy and, for lack of a better term, incestuousness to it that allows people to grow together.”
Major live-action projects flock to the area, as well, contributing to the $144.7 million in direct spending for the fiscal year 2020-2021. Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss produced the upcoming Netflix coming-of-age movie Metal Lords locally, and actress Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones) directed four of eight episodes of Peacock’s upcoming supernatural drama The Girl in the Woods. Four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams returned to Portland last year to shoot A24’s Showing Up, her fourth collaboration with director Kelly Reichardt (First Cow).
Expect the production business to keep growing in this Northwest city, too. Lord tells MovieMaker, “Our state film incentive fund increased from $14 million to $20 million, so there will be increased production activity accordingly.”
And if none of that convinces you, check out Pig, the magnificent Nicholas Cage drama that puts Portland — and its exquisite culinary tradition — on gorgeous display.
Memphis is one of America’s greatest music cities, so naturally, it’s a great place to make movies about music, too. Hustle & Flow and Walk the Line were both filmed in the region many moons ago, but lately the home of the vital National Civil Rights Museum has also been the base of many productions highlighting the fight against racial injustice.
Portions of the ABC miniseries Women of the Movement, produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z, were filmed around South Main Street. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard), the series focuses on Mamie Till- Mobley (played by Tony winner Adrienne Warren) and the Civil Rights Movement after her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered by white supremacists in 1955. The city also welcomed The Scent of Linden, the first Bulgarian feature ever produced entirely in the United States, directed by filmmaker Tzvetana “Sissy” Denkova, who lives in Memphis and set the film there to explore the American Dream through the experience of a Bulgarian immigrant. Denkova employed local crew and cast Bulgarian talent. The Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission helped the first-time navigate a complicated Visa process, which should serve as an example of just how hard the film commission will work to support films set in the area.
“The Memphis Film Commission went above and beyond to be there for me night and day, available to me like the closest friends would be,” Denkova tells MovieMaker. She describes local Memphis crews as “some of the most compassionate and creatively hungry.
“They have been going to bat for me since I picked up the phone to invite them,” she says. “This is especially humbling when they often have other work offers with better rates and they make the sacrifice to work on this project because they truly want to see a local feature come to life and support the ecosystem that we are all a part of. There’s something that buzzes between us where we are all pulling each other up. An overall feeling of growth mindedness.”
Filmmakers living in Memphis will enjoy some of the best barbecue and biscuits in the country, as well as a vibrant creative culture and community of artists who create for the sake of creating. The nightlife is electric, and artists can refill their inspiration with visits to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Sun studio, and Graceland.
“Living in Memphis as a filmmaker is the best of all worlds,” Denkova adds. “There’s such a long runway of work before you actually get to shoot that having a work life balance is important not just financially or in terms of a more affordable standard of living, but also my need to have one foot outside of where the majority of the business lives, to experience real life, which impacts the stories you think about telling.”
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