If we made a list of the Most Obvious Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker, New York and Los Angeles would lead it every year. They’re the film capitals of the world, unmatched in influence, opportunity and legend. So years ago, we retired them to our Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker Hall of Fame, where they stand alone and unrivaled, except by each other.
They also stand out in expense. The Worldwide Cost of Living Index just released by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that New York tied Singapore for the most expensive city in the world. Tel Aviv was next, and Los Angeles and Hong Kong were tied for fourth.
We don’t believe people should have to be rich or well-connected to make movies. And we know plenty of people who moved to L.A. or New York with filmmaking dreams and ended up working industry-barely-adjacent jobs just to pay the bills. We think the best place to live is one you can afford — a place where you can be happy, inspired, and financially free to pursue your art.
That philosophy factored highly into the creation of this list. We based it on surveys with film officials, discussions with filmmakers, independent research into cost of living and quality of life, and, whenever possible, visits to the cities and towns on this list.
We also took into account that some people want to live in a massive city with the biggest possible overall film-industry spend, while others want to live in a smaller community with high per-capita spend. That’s why we offer one list of Big Cities, and another list of Smaller Cities and Towns. But we’ve made a change this year, capping the Smaller Cities and Towns list at places with a population of 200,000 or less. That means cities like New Orleans — No. 1 on our Smaller Cities and Towns list last year — have been bumped up to the Big Cities category.
For this and other reasons, we have a new No. 1 this year in both categories. After the astonishing feat of spending four consecutive years at the top of our big cities list, Albuquerque is handing the top position back to the big city that last led our list in 2018. Albuquerque hasn’t so much slipped as spread the wealth across the rest of New Mexico. The state, which we visited for several days in the summer of 2022, has built a thriving, sustainable film scene that goes well beyond its biggest city. And of course Albuquerque remains one of our favorite cinematic cities.
Finally, as you’ve probably heard, you can do almost anything over Zoom now — so your options have been freed up considerably in recent years. We understand that cold weather will be a non-starter for some people, and hot summers a problem for others. Family and personal connections are incredibly important. So our top choices may not be your top choices, and that’s fine. We hope this list helps your research and fires your imagination.
All that said, let’s travel.
25. FORT WORTH, TEXAS (TIE)
Texas is booming, as you’re about to see from the five Lone Star State cities on this list — all of which would be higher in our rankings if Texas offered more generous tax incentives. Still, the state is working hard to attract film and TV projects, and the signs of growth are obvious all over the state. Fort Worth is the proud home of Taylor Sheridan’s upcoming Paramount+ limited series about Bass Reeves, the once-enslaved man who became a famed federal marshall. Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel 1883 also shoots in Fort Worth, and is based in nearby Weatherford, where Sheridan owns a ranch. Fort Worth offers clear skies, easy permitting, and a vibrant film culture that includes the Lone Star Film Festival. The 13th-biggest city in the country also has experienced crews and a cost of living almost exactly in line with the U.S. average. While there’s no official local incentive program, the city’s very accommodating film officials work hard to offer soft incentives like deals on hotels.
25. ORLANDO, FLORIDA (TIE)
Much more than just the home of Disney World, Orlando is especially popular lately for commercial shoots. It offers reliably sunny skies, an average temperature of 83 degrees, and more than 4,000 miles of varied locations. The homes range from modern to rustic; the bodies of water from swamps to shimmering lakes to streams; the land from pastoral to jungle to cityscape. The cost of living is close to the national average, and while Florida ended its statewide film-tax incentive program in 2016, productions can apply for a sales and use tax exemption on certain production-related purchases. One of the best parts of the Orlando film scene is the presence of Full Sail University, which recently made our list of the best film schools in the U.S. and Canada. Full Sail students provide a steady flow of talent and creativity.
24. KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI
Kansas City requires no film permits, and has spectacular locations, from the 18th & Vine Jazz District to suburbs to beautiful Art Deco buildings to gorgeous lakes, as well as miles and miles of caves and natural tunnels that are ideal for filming — or storage. KC does a remarkable job of attracting high-profile productions considering Missouri’s lack of tax incentives for filmmakers. (As state representative LaDonna Appelbaum noted last year, as she introduced the latest unsuccessful bill to put a film tax credit in place, “Even a show like Ozark that takes place in Missouri’s own Lake of the Ozarks is mostly filmed in Atlanta.”) Steph Shannon, director of the KC Film Office and vice president of communications for the Missouri Motion Media Association, is working tirelessly to get lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas to realize how many millions their states could be earning from film and TV. But in the meantime, the charms of Kansas City have still lured projects like Amy Poehler’s non-scripted The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and indie film features like the Burghart Brothers’ Head Count. HBO’s The Last of Us, shot mostly in Calgary, has also shot in KC.
23. ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA
This can-do production magnet makes up for Florida’s lack of statewide incentives by offering its own. Film St. Pete/Clearwater’s Cash Rebate Program pays 10-30% on qualified expenditures within Pinellas County’s 24 municipalities, luring plenty of projects drawn to the year-round sun, immaculate beaches, and magnificent architecture — from the mind-bending Salvador Dali Museum to Mediterranean Revival homes to the Neoclassical Princess Martha building, a hotel turned glamorous 55+ community. If you’re looking for humdrum, dull locations, we’re afraid St. Petersburg won’t be of much use to you. St. Petersburg is especially popular for indies and Lifetime movies, like the recent, brilliantly titled Spring Break Nightmare. It boasts an extremely experienced and deep crew base, as well as free permits you can easily apply for online. If you’re thinking it all sounds expensive, no! The cost of living is almost exactly the U.S. average.
22. SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
San Antonio offers turnkey film permitting and free permits for more than 250 city-owned locations, including parks, libraries and the endlessly photogenic San Antonio River Walk. That very welcoming attitude has drawn a healthy mix of indie films, documentaries, and unscripted shows, and the crew base is known for experience, flexibility and budget consciousness. The cost of living is surprisingly low, and San Antonio offers very competitive tax breaks: In addition to the Texas incentive of up to 22.5%, the San Antonio Film Incentive Program provides qualified productions with up to a 7.5% rebate, for a total incentive of up to 30%. The growing film culture is reflected in the University of Texas at San Antonio now offering a brand-new Bachelor of Arts in Multidisciplinary Studies: Film and Media Studies. And you can choose from a dozen equipment rental houses, half a dozen post houses, and more than 15 production facilities. All in a region rich in history that exudes friendliness and authenticity.
21. HOUSTON, TEXAS
It’s surprising that the country’s fourth-largest city isn’t a bigger film hub, but it has its hands full being one of America’s most diverse, business-friendly, and culturally blessed cities, all while being home to NASA. Even without big tax incentives, it remains irresistible to many filmmakers, and Richard Linklater’s semi-autobiographical 2022 animated epic Apollo 10 ½ is a great indicator of why — its history is fascinating, and its competitive drive intoxicating. Recent shoots include VH1’s Hip Hop Family Christmas Part 2 and HBO’s Max’s House of Ho. The cost of living is below the U.S. average, which is a special find in an American metropolis of its vastness and opportunity.
20. DALLAS, TEXAS
Why choose Dallas? The city offers an online document that addresses just that question, and points to factors including its equal access to both coasts, great weather (except for some cold nights) and striking visuals, including modern and futuristic buildings that form a strikingly camera-worthy nighttime skyline. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country, with a deep, experienced crew base, easily obtainable permits, and hotel deals to be had — if you’re shooting in Dallas and staying in the city’s hotels for at least 15 nights, you could qualify for up to 10% back on rooms. It’s a great city to work on other people’s projects so you can save enough money to create your own, and is almost exactly in line with the U.S. average cost of living. Just drive or walk its streets and it’s impossible not to notice the new construction and businesses popping up all over town, and it’s full of rising filmmakers who pitch in to do each other favors and bring one another’s projects to life. The Dallas International Film Festival does an admirable job of showcasing must-see films like last year’s documentary Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom.
Our list of the Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker continues here…
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Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker, 2023
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