Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2015: Top Five Towns

January 21, 2015

We decided to republish this Movie Maker Article because it features Missoula, MT, where The Audience Awards lives!


All this week, we’re releasing the 2015 edition of our annual Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker list, in three parts: the Top Five Towns, Top Five Small Cities, and Top 10 Big Cities in the United States. Where should you make your next film—and your next home? First up today: the best of small-town America.

Director Wim Wenders once argued, in a speech entitled “In Defense of Places” delivered at photographic exposition Photo LA, that places in film are taken for granted; that they can be as important as the story. In fact, story and characters may be dictated by their place within a place, so to speak. Wenders’ thoughts ring particularly true now that filmmaking has become increasingly decentralized across the United States. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the digital revolution is that stories can be told anywhere. Nobody has to follow the well-worn paths of decades past; instead, we can blaze new trails. The moviemaker of 2015 is free to explore fertile new cinematic territory, inhabiting it with characters at once unique and universal.

So welcome to MovieMaker’s annual countdown of the Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker—the 20 best communities for moviemaking in the United States this year. As with last year’s list, we’ve categorized our places into three pools: Big Cities (pop. 400,000 and up), Small Cities (pop. 100,000 to 400,000), and Towns (pop. under 100,000); numbers are based on actual city population, rather than metro area.

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David Oyelowo in the upcoming Five Nights in Maine, filmed in part in Portland, ME. Courtesy of Dennis Williams.


We hope these brief overviews may help you decide if a place has the right atmosphere and infrastructure for your moviemaking style and your lifestyle. As usual, all places were rated according to six criteria: Film Production in 2014 (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 includes lifestyle, weather, transportation and other “livability” categories. These factors were compiled into a rubric, distributed to film commissions across the country, and the resulting information, along with our own research and insight from sites like and, provided the final results. Along the way, we spoke to working moviemakers in each city and town—that’s right, people who actually make their living in these places—who told us their stories of career success and personal fulfillment.

Of course, no matter how objective we strive to be, a community’s true spirit isn’t perfectly quantifiable, and we all know that nuances of culture aren’t as clear-cut as state lines. Case in point: Albuquerque and Santa Fe, two places on this year’s list, are a mere 62 miles apart, but their vibes are as different as Los Angeles and San Francisco (Unlike Los Angeles and San Francisco, though, crews in New Mexico take better advantage of that short distance, commuting to work in both.) Want to make a case for your hometown? Send a letter to We’d love to hear where you live and shoot—even if it’s outside of the United States entirely (now recruiting: a volunteer army of researchers for that article, hopefully to appear here in 2016…)

One thing everyone we spoke with this year seemed to have in common: Moviemakers love where they’re living, and would love to talk you into making their place yours, too.





5. Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine resident and award-winning cinematographer Zach Zamboni (Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and No Reservations) said, “Of all the places I’ve been in the world, Maine is my favorite.”

His foodie filmography makes perfect sense in the context of Portland, which has long been considered a dining gem in the Northeast, having once been named America’s Foodiest Small Town by Bon Appétit. “I grew up in the vast forests of the North, but now live close by the sea, so I can sail on a daily basis and eat fresh oysters,” Zamboni added.

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Actress Maria Thayer and DP Tom Ackerman on the set of Night of the Living Deb. Courtesy of Living Deb, LLC.


In 2014, Portland, Maine welcomed the productions of Five Nights in Maine starring David Oyelowo, Rosie Perez, and Dianne Wiest, as well as Night of the Living Deb, Kyle Rankin’s crowdfunded romantic comedy set in the midst of a zombie outbreak. These indies took advantage of a state tax incentive of up to 12 percent, requiring only a $75,000 minimum spend.

This idyllic town is small, but has room for indie theatres, a series screening art house fare at the Portland Museum of Art, and schools like the New England Film Academy and Maine College of Art.

“Maine has always attracted artists and craftsmen, thinkers, vanguard-types,” said Zamboni. “I think it’s the weather; perfect summers and beautiful, deadly winters. It’s an inherently dramatic place which forces us to be hard workers. I’d say that makes it a filmmaker’s paradise.”



4. Missoula, Montana

It’s hard to confine all that’s going on in the Big Sky town of Missoula in this space… To go along with the dramatic landscapes, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) call Missoula home, as does the Montana Film Academy, which offers camps and classes to young people sponsored by the Montana Film Office, and the Roxy Theatre, a popular venue for screenings of made-in-Montana films.

Overall, these come together under the mission of the Montana Film Office: “encouraging and stimulating the growth of local filmmakers in state,” said Mike Steinberg, Executive Director of the IWFF and the Roxy.

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Mission Valley, north of Missoula, in Vera Brunner-Sung’s Bella Vista. Courtesy of Slowtale LLC.


One of the films shot in 2014 and recently screened at the Roxy was Vera Brunner-Sung’s powerfulBella Vista, which centers on outsiders in the Missoula community, set against the isolation of some of the Montana landscapes. The film’s team included students from the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts.

“The Montana Film Office and its Big Sky Film Grant were a huge support,” Brunner-Sung said. “The typical attitude was, ‘How can I help?’ People gave us a hand tracking down equipment, offered discounts on their day rates, made us lunch, volunteered to PA for a few days. Homegrown support has been especially key for us, working on a tiny budget. I feel fortunate to have found a team here that was dedicated to making this film happen.”



3. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Romantic, beautiful, and historic, Santa Fe is distinguished for being a multicultural arts hub in the New Mexican desert. “The creative environment drew me to Santa Fe,” said Jane Rosemont, director, writer and producer of the award-winning 2014 documentary short “Pie Lady of Pie Town.” “We had a rental home here and, as a fine art photographer, my visits became longer and longer… then I got smart and moved here full time.”

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Jane Rosemont and Wes Studi of “Pie Lady of Pie Town.” Courtesy of Jane Rosemont.


About local filmmaking spirit, Rosemont said, “When I was looking for a director of photography and an editor, all I needed to do is ask my friends in the industry here. Everyone is eager to help match up appropriate workers with filmmakers. There are enough resources for a rich pool, but it’s not overwhelming.” That rich pool includes actor Wes Studi (who provided narration on Pie Lady) and author George R. R. Martin of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga made world-famous by HBO’s Game of Thrones. Those two are permanent fixtures at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, which is held in part at Martin’s own recently restored Jean Cocteau Cinema.



2. Asheville, North Carolina

On the September 3, 2014 broadcast of The Late Show with David Letterman, Kristen Wiig expressed her love for the “hippie” town of Asheville, particularly the “great restaurants, Friday night drum circle, salt cave meditations,” and “concept spa” Still Point Wellness.

Terrific! But what about the work? Wiig was in Asheville this year to shoot Masterminds with Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, directed by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared Hess. Other 2014 features include Warner Bros.-MGM feature Max and indie feature Chasing Grace, and numerous Discovery, History and Travel Channel productions.

For another perspective, talk to area native Ellen Pfirrmann, who has various location manager credits on projects like The Hunger Games, Leatherheads, A Dance for Bethany, and Homeland.“You can’t beat the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s big city funky, artistic. I grew up there. Unfortunately, to make a living you often have to branch out—but I’ve been very lucky the last few years, with North Carolina’s film incentives in place, to be able to stay home. I know Dupont State Forest, where Last of the Mohicans was shot, back and forth.”

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Asheville Grove Park Inn. Courtesy of Venture Asheville.


While the North Carolina Film Office reported better-than-ever film-related expenditure across the state in 2014, celebrations were undermined somewhat by the state’s decision in August to reduce its incentive budget to a small $10 million grant program for the first half of 2015 (up to 25 percent credit with a $5 million per-project cap for features). This change is a major reason Asheville, our top town last year, has fallen from its perch this year. Still, the quirky college town is a great place to live, with a well-known culinary scene and a reputation for friendly Southern hospitality.


1. Ashland, Oregon

Located half way between San Francisco and Portland, Ashland benefits from Oregon’s incentives: a cash rebate of 20 percent on goods and services and 16.2 percent on labor spending over $1 million. Indies, take note: Five percent of Oregon’s incentive fund is earmarked for indigenous low-budget productions between $75,000 and $750,000. And while housing is higher than the Oregon average, apartment rentals are still below $1,000—and there’s no state sales tax.

Home to talent like actor Bruce Campbell and directors Alex Cox and Gary Lundgren, Ashland’s film industry is a big focus within its vibrant, artistic culture. In June 2014, the City of Ashland gave the Southern Oregon Film and Media office (SOFAM) a $7,700 economic development grant in recognition of growing contributions to the local economy. Education is a significant avenue for growth: Besides programs at Southern Oregon University and the Southern Oregon Digital Media Center, even the Ashland Middle School has a media lab with 10 cameras, 20 editing systems and an in-house TV studio with a green screen, pedestal cameras, and a lighting grid. As Robert Arellano, a film professor at Southern Oregon University, told us, many of his students go on to take part in the Ashland Independent Film Festival’s LAUNCH student program every year.

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The 2014 Ashland Independent Film Festival. Photograph by Krista Hepford.


Ashland is indeed a forward-thinking town. In late 2014, Google named Ashland Oregon’s eCity Digital Capital for the second year in a row. “With advantages such as the city-owned fiber optic network,” said Gary Kout, executive director of SOFAM, “the second wave of film creation and innovation in Ashland will come in the world of post-production, as local filmmakers take advantage of its tremendous digital culture and fast pipeline.”

What about locations? “If you can’t go to New Zealand, come to Southern Oregon!” said filmmaker Courtney Williams, who lists “woods and forests, wild flower meadows, otherworldly dunes, the coast with its dramatic cliffs, rivers and rapids, and mountainsides” as the region’s picturesque landscapes. After all, Ashland has 785 acres of parks. “You can create multiple worlds in multiple time periods here. And the Oregon Shakespeare Festival repertory company can outfit those eras—their collection rivals Western Costume!”

Productions shot in Ashland in 2014 include Courage of Two, By God’s Grace, Brothers-in Law(produced by Lorne Michaels), documentary 5 Women, and Gary Lundgren’s Black Road.MovieMaker’s special events coordinator Jeffrey Star, who worked on Black Road as a PA, waxes lyrical: “The entire community banded together to support our small crew, in the form of donated meals, services, and locations. This was small­town filmmaking at its finest.” MM


This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue, available on newsstands on January 30, 2015, and for digital download from iTunes on January 24, 2015. Illustrations and lettering byNicole Miles.

This article is courtesy of: 

The Audience Awards is film’s social network connecting audiences to films, filmmakers, film schools and film festivals. The Audience Awards hosts short film competitions where the audience chooses the best films.

June Noel

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