We released 2016’s Best Big Cities to Live and Work as a Moviemaker yesterday; today we announce our 10 top Small Cities and Towns, combined this year into a single list.
Used to be if you wanted to work in the movies there were only a couple of places to be, kid. No longer: In 2016 you can audition actors in Tokyo via Skype, then upload your projects to Dropbox and send them to New York for instant review while still in your jammies. What’s more, if you build it, they really will come; cities around the country that have invested in large-scale production are drawing Hollywood shoots to their home turf in growing numbers, affording moviemakers the opportunity to explore a spectrum of lifestyles, cultures, and communities. So the question is more pervasive than ever: Where to?
In our continuing mission to make the lives of independent moviemakers even better, we take time each year to spotlight the most promising and fertile places in the country to put down roots. We scour the nation, poll film commissions, trawl through data, and interview moviemakers in hundreds of localities. Because there are so many variables endemic to comparing the Big Apple with Orange County, for example, we assembled the rankings based on the following factors: Film Production in 2015 (shooting days, number of productions, dollars generated), Film Community and Culture (film schools, festivals, independent theaters, film organizations), Access to Equipment and Facilities, Tax Incentives, Cost of Living, and a General category that encapsulates lifestyle, weather and transportation.
As per recent tradition, we put together a standalone list of 10 big cities (pop. 400,000 and up), but this year we combined small cities (pop. 100,000 to 400,000) and towns (pop. 100,000 and under) into a single list, also of 10. (Note: To maintain uniformity across our rankings, we measured population by the city proper, and not the surrounding metro areas.) We hope that whatever you’re looking for, these two lists convey the best of the places where you, the future of American cinema, can live well and make your home a wellspring for your cinematic ambitions. Welcome to your next adventure.
1. Savannah, Georgia
With its distinctive greenery and romantic neighborhoods, little Savannah wins big. The year 2015 was something of a banner production year for the city, which hosted 90 professional projects, such as Adam Sandler-starrer The Do Over, Marc Webb’s Gifted and three Sundance 2016 features: Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Antonio Campos’ Christine, which also shot in New York, and Clea Duvall’s The Intervention.
Sure, the famed Georgian incentives are paying off here, with that juicy 30 percent transferable tax credit. Features that have budgets of over $2 million and meet Savannah’s $500,000-minimum local spend requirement get an 10 percent additional cash rebate. There’s also an incentive designed to increase the local crew base, offering up to $2,000 reimbursement on moving costs to experienced personnel relocating to Savannah.
Getting the greenlight: Netflix’s Adam Sandler comedy The Do-Over shoots a lighting test at the Savannah Film Factory production facility in July 2015. Photograph by Andy Young
In addition to the excellent Savannah Film Festival and some smaller fests, this July sees the debut of the Big River Film Festival in Savannah. The city boasts several professional film organizations and, as home to the Savannah College of Art and Design, sees plenty of film students eager for work. We spoke to Seth F. Johnson, a recent SCAD grad with a BFA in Film and Television, who is working on a film that will air on TV One.
“There is a fantastic group of filmmakers already living here,” he says. “When I got on my current set, I already knew about a third of the crew. The Savannah Film Office has always been very accommodating, and even took the time to help me find locations while I was an undergraduate. On this film, they have been able to assist me with arranging picture cars, shutting down streets, and even notifying the Coast Guard about our need to fire a flare gun.”
Johnson also loves Savannah’s rich visual possibilities, including the nation’s largest historical district, an urban evergreen forest and boundless coastal and rural settings. “In February of 2015, I directed a short film called ‘One Traveler Too Many,’ which I shot in the historic district. Since the film was set in the 1890s, I was able to utilize the brick roads and the old Victorian homes. Then, in summer, I shot a short drama about three young adults on a sailing adventure called ‘Death of a Dream.’ I only had to travel 15 minutes down the road, and I was able to film in the marsh and in and around the islands.”
Nate Parker’s Sundance-premiering Birth of a Nation shoots on River Street in Savannah. Photograph by Will Hammargren
With its low cost of living, comfortable small-town vibes and serious focus on moviemaking, Savannah is doing many things right. As Johnson adds, “Being able to graduate and immediately have an income in the industry is pretty awesome!”
2. New Orleans, Louisiana
“New Orleans boasts the most diverse portfolio of film and television work in the state of Louisiana,” says Katie Williams, director of Film New Orleans, “catering to the largest of studio features, the smallest of independent projects and a wide range of television and commercial productions.” 2015’s high-profile ventures included Adam McKay’s The Big Short, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, Rob Reiner’s LBJ and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, as well as TV projects such as NCIS: New Orleans, AMC’s Into the Badlands, Fox’s Scream Queens and the remake of landmark miniseries Roots. Thirty-eight productions qualified for Louisiana’s 30 percent transferable tax credit (plus, plus—productions using in-state labor get an additional 10 percent payroll tax credit); 91 more didn’t, failing to meet the $300,000 minimum spend cut-off. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is headed to Louisiana in 2016, amongst other titles.
The NCIS: New Orleans episode “Insane in the Membrane” features the city’s annual Red Dress
Run, a charity marathon where participants dress in scarlet. Photograph by Skip Bolen / Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting
That said, the state’s generous incentive program has undergone some recent changes (with even more rumblings on the horizon), imposing a $180-million cap on tax credits last summer. (A recent case of producers convicted of cheating the incentive system hasn’t helped matters much.)
Still, you’ll find a robust selection of local crew and production facilities in the Crescent City. And, besides the New Orleans Film Society and its top-notch New Orleans Film Festival, the city is home to independent moviemakers with serious street cred, like Bill and Turner Ross (Western) and the Court 13 collective behind Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea and, most famously, homegrown hit Beasts of the Southern Wild.
This is all very good news for a city still rebuilding from Katrina’s damage. On the subject of the last decade’s successful revitalization efforts in New Orleans, Williams believes that the city is “a global leader on resilience.” She notes that “New Orleans has become this nation’s—and in many instances, this world’s—most immediate laboratory for innovation and change,” with major recent improvements in education and criminal justice reform.
Most of Adam McKay’s Wall Street-focused The Big Short was shot in New Orleans. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
David Akin, a native who moved back to the area after living in L.A. for years and now owns EPK Louisiana, talked to CNN in August 2015 about the boom in the film business. “You know the saying here: ‘Making groceries.’ People are making lots and lots of groceries, and that’s a metaphor for everything. I’m working on two shows right now. I’ve done more cool things in the last six, seven, eight years than I’ve done in a 30-year career.” Oh, and speaking of groceries: You won’t be wanting for good food in the Big Easy. Have a beignet and a coffee on us.
3. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
With a population just under half a million, this capital city hosted over 35 productions in 2015, with local production spending exceeding an impressive $175 million. Productions shot in town included The Magnificent Seven (the Antoine Fuqua reboot with Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), MTV’s Scream, Sundance Channel’s Hap and Leonard, Underground (WGN’s original series about the Underground Railroad), a digital series from Vimeo called The Parallax Theory, and Showing Roots, an indie feature starring Uzo Aduba and Elizabeth McGovern and inspired by the Roots miniseries.
An 80-mile drive from New Orleans, the Big Easy might outweigh it in volume of production, but it is Baton Rouge that has Celtic Studios, the biggest purpose-built production studio in the entire state. “Big Raggedy” is rife with little bonuses like these, on top of the strong Louisiana tax incentive program. As a major testament to the Baton Rouge Film Commission’s prowess, production has gone digital. Its free app, BY BATON ROUGE, streamlines information pertaining to shooting locations, crew, and hundreds of local vendors offering discounts to film and television productions.
Set in 1977 and filmed in Baton Rouge, indie drama Showing Roots stars Maggie Grace, Cicely Tyson and Uzo Aduba. Photograph by Joshua Stringer
Want more? “The city also offers a fee-free filming location known as the Public Safety complex,” notes Amy Mitchell-Smith, former executive director of the Baton Rouge Film Commission, “a former hospital facility where productions such as Scream, Hap and Leonard and Zipper filmed.”
Louisiana State University’s film program features the likes of Zack Godshall (Lord Byron, Low and Behold) teaching screenwriting. Also, NOVAC: Baton Rouge (a division of the 43-year-old nonprofit New Orleans Video Access Center) offers free training programs to prospective crew members in various facets of film and television production. While Baton Rouge may not yet have New Orleans’ rich cultural history, the city seems on its way to building a cinematic legacy of its own.
4. Santa Fe, New Mexico
For a town with a population of just under 70,000, Santa Fe is outrageously busy when it comes to moviemaking. “A consistent average of 60 filming permits per year are executed within the city alone, which includes various travel and leisure programming, independents and student projects,” says Lisa Van Allen, Santa Fe’s film liaison. Sharing the same statewide incentives we mentioned for Albuquerque, and with about a dozen production facilities, equipment rental businesses and post-production houses in all, Santa Fe has attracted shows like WGN’s series Manhattan and Netflix’s Longmire, and features such as The Ridiculous 6, Tjardus Greidanus’s Hellbent, the Nikolaj Coster-Waldau-starring Shot Caller and The Magnificent Seven, which also shot in Louisiana.
The 2014 series Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey was filmed in Santa Fe. Courtesy of Tanana Rivera and the Santa Fe Film Festival
With the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, Spanish colonial architecture dating back centuries, and a local populace dense with artists and writers, Santa Fe is simply gorgeous, but moviemakers are not the only ones who have caught on. Tourism is a stronghold of the Santa Fe economy, and all those visitors come with a price tag to the housing market—the cost of living in Santa Fe is about 20 percent higher than it is in neighboring Albuquerque, only an hour’s drive to the south. Since many of the shoots that come through the Land of Enchantment wind up shooting in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, crew travels fluidly between the two cities, and may choose to live in one and work in the other.
For those looking for a small town that’s anything but sleepy, Santa Fe might be for you. This moviemaking community grows ever more active, with locals enjoying two strong film festivals of their own (the Santa Fe Film Festival and Santa Fe Independent Film Festival), two colleges offering degrees in film and four independent movie theaters, including the George R. R. Martin-owned Jean Cocteau Cinema.
5. Ashland, Oregon
The great Pacific Northwest… my, how screenwriters, directors and cinematographers love you. While Vancouver, Portland and Seattle battle for the blockbuster flicks and moody TV shows, this scenic, low-key small town in Oregon of around 20,000 people keeps building a hearty film community.
Ashland is unusually dedicated to the arts. There’s a bustling culinary scene, a no-big box store policy (and no state sales tax!), film festivals, independent theaters and a super-supportive film organization called the Southern Oregon Film and Media (SOFaM). SOFaM was awarded a $10,000 economic development grant in June 2015, up from $7,700 the year prior, to continue to support its 200-plus members.
Southern Oregon University in Ashland offers film and media degrees, and the Southern Oregon Digital Media Center provides continuing education and training programs through their producer’s certification program. The Ashland Middle and High Schools offer several media courses. With this many film education programs in one place, you’d almost think Ashland has a master plan to groom the world’s next generation of hitmakers.
If you weren’t already charmed by a town that hosts a chocolate festival, an Innovators Conference, the Oregon Shakespeare festival and summer-long outdoor free series of music and dance, you might like its 93 acres of forested canyonland or its 785 acres of parkland. Plus, Ashland’s sandwiched between San Francisco and Portland, so you’ll never be out of touch with big city life.
The feature Black Road was shot in Ashland in 2015. Photograph by Mark Arinsberg
Filmmakers Gary and Anne Lundgren are currently working on their feature Black Road. They first stumbled upon Ashland in 2007 for a shoot, then moved in. “The residents are very supportive of film,” says Gary. “It’s an easy place to shoot in terms of permitting and getting around—no traffic. There are film pros working here who are very friendly and approachable, like Bruce Campbell and Alex Cox. It’s a tough, competitive business wherever you go, but in Ashland it all feels more accessible. There aren’t many egos here, and there’s enough opportunity that any ambition and talent will go a long way.”
6. Providence, Rhode Island
It may be in the country’s tiniest state, but the city of Providence, Rhode Island still packs big punch. With a 25 percent nonrefundable, transferable tax credit to qualified productions with a minimum spend of $100,000, productions with distinguished pedigrees shot here in 2015, including the Scorsese-produced Bleed for This with Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, the Rooney Mara-driven romance The Discovery, The Purge 3 and November Criminals, with Catherine Keener, David Strathairn and Chloë Grace Moretz.
Providence boasts five schools with film and media programs (the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University among them), five film festivals, including the Academy-qualifying Rhode Island International Film Festival, and two independent movie theaters. With surprisingly sprawling soundstages and production facilities, the local film commission calls its homeland “the smallest state with the greatest backlot.”
Miles Teller (right) plays Vinny Pazienza in Bleed for This, filmed around Rhode Island, including Providence, in late 2014
One of the nation’s oldest cities, the shooting locations in Providence and its immediate surroundings are peerless—historic buildings and a gorgeous downtown, harbors and islands, all four seasons. It’s a city many notable filmmakers call home including comedy masterminds Bobby and Peter Farrelly, and indie-actor favorites Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins.
7. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Jennifer Beals made this industrial city sexy in 1983’s Flashdance, and Jay and Silent Bob made it a cosmic battleground for good and evil in 1999’s Dogma, and the moviemaking scene has only continued to grow in the years since. Pittsburgh generated over $100 million through its productions efforts in 2015, attracting numerous productions with its 25 percent tax credit and robust local production facilities and crews. Ewan McGregor made his directorial debut in Pittsburgh in 2015 with his feature film adaptation of Philip Roth’s modern classic American Pastoral. The family Christmas comedy Love the Coopers also shot in Pittsburgh this year, along with several episodic series, including the fourth season of the crime thriller Banshee from Cinemax and Outsiders from WGN.
On set for the fourth (and final) season of Cinemax’s Banshee in Pittsburgh. Photograph by James A Mahathey
An industrial city with infrastructure dating back to the 17th century, Pittsburgh is known for its livability, safety and bikeability. If your film features bridges, consider that Pittsburgh’s bridges total 445—that’s more than Venice, Italy! And if George Romero is your moviemaking idol, Pittsburgh might just be your promised land: “Zombies are particularly popular in Pittsburgh, since Night of the Living Dead was filmed in Evans City,” says Dawn Keezer, director of the ultra-helpful Pittsburgh Film Office. The yearly Pittsburgh Zombie Fest holds a popular zombie walk. Speaking of genre, the city also hosts Steel City Con and Wizard World Comic Con Pittsburgh.
With nine institutions offering courses of study in film production (including Tom Savini’s Special Make-up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center), seven independent movie theaters, local production studios such as 31st Street Studios and PMI… and the most bars per capita of any city in the United States, Pittsburgh remains staunchly on our list. What a feeling!
8. Richmond, Virginia
Four features filmed in Richmond this fall, including Imperium starring Daniel Radcliffe, Loving helmed by Jeff Nichols, and Ithaca, Meg Ryan’s directorial debut. The episodic PBS show Mercy Street, shooting in Richmond and Petersburg, is a welcome addition to the scene since its long-term production schedule keeps generating revenue and employing local crew. With these larger productions coming through the area, more jobs are being created, and in a town of 214,000, the economic impact is substantial. Most telling, though, is when homegrown moviemakers such as cult director Rick Alverson, the cult director behind the Sundance 2015-premiering Entertainment, shoot their films there.
Ridley Scott comes to town: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in the director’s Civil War series Mercy Street, filmed in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Courtesy of Antony Platt and PBS
Richmond has a vibrant educational arts community (with the highly rated Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond and Virginia State University all possessing strong film curricula), gorgeous scenery and historic sites that include two period ships and a wharf set for production use—all these are even more reasons to place Richmond on the moviemaking map.
9. Shreveport-Bossier, Louisiana
Shreveport-Bossier again this year has a lot of moviemaking to brag about. Ten projects based their productions in Shreveport in 2015, with cumulative production budgets in excess of $42 million. WGN’s original series Salem continued into its third season in Shreveport, where it shoots on a sprawling 12-acre 17th-century set originally built by Fox.
17th-century colonial Massachusetts? Look again—WGN’s series Salem is actually shot in Shreveport. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television
Other large-scale production facilities are planting a seed of Old Hollywood grandiosity within this small Louisiana city. The Louisiana Wave Studio, an 80 by 100-foot facility built by Disney in 2005 for its feature, The Guardian, can generate waves up to eight feet in amplitude among a variety of other water effects. Shreveport also houses a seven-acre Biblical-era set, sequestered in the center of several hundred acres that include Louisiana sand dunes. Soundstages like StageWorks, StageWest and Millennium Studios continue to aid moviemakers. It’s perks like these, combined with the same 30 percent tax credit as New Orleans and Baton Rouge enjoy, plus an additional 2.5 percent sales tax rebate exclusive to Shreveport-Bossier, that keep production work flowing through the region.
10. Orlando, Florida
Beyond the city’s bustling commercial and sports production, feature moviemaking is gradually carving out a foothold in Orlando. For one, production companies are finding ways to take advantage of the city’s well-equipped film schools by bringing work directly to campuses.
On the Orlando set of a 2015 commercial for International Delight. Courtesy of the Orlando Film Commission
“The projects involved get a huge cut in their production value, and access to the space, gear and lower-line-level crewmembers in students,” says T.J. Doctor, a local producer and head of production at Full Sail University. Makes sense, because besides Full Sail, students learn at the University of Central Florida (with a production complex boasting comprehensive motion-capture facilities), Orlando Tech and the Digital Animation and Visual Effects School.
And who could forget the Mouse? “The slew of theme parks [attract] not only technicians but also creatives and actors, so there’s actually a really artistic community here” says Doctor. The talent pool in Orlando, he says, come for the gigs at Disney World, Universal and Epcot, but stay for the creative camaraderie. With 12 film festivals, tax incentives of up to 30 percent (films get bonuses for being “family-friendly,” shooting in off-season, and more) and year-round sunshine, Orlando is a magical place.
On the Cusp
Asheville, North Carolina
While North Carolina’s incentive programs have taken a hit in recent years, Asheville has three things every moviemaker dreams of: one, a supportive film community with experienced crew; two, a cosmopolitan and eclectic downtown with dozens of art galleries, Art Deco architecture and world-class culinary offerings; and three, awe-inspiring views surrounding those majestic Blue Ridge Mountains.
“The Jackson film culture is on a dramatic upward swing,” says Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office. “More than 15 films were shot in the area in the last 24 months, and both reality show and commercial production are up.” We like the town’s healthy rebate program, the 17-year-old Crossroads Film Festival and the Mississippi Museum of Art’s screening series