Cinema was born in France but it grew up in Hollywood. Filmmakers of vision and ambition capitalized on the Californian outdoors and built a city of studios that could double for any place on Earth—or beyond. But as cameras got portable and audiences demanded greater story variety, America’s filmmakers branched out or sprouted up in every state.
Some states were chosen for their particular flavor (Minnesota for Fargo) or history (Mississippi for In the Heat of the Night). Others are cast just because they are not Big American Movie States: think of the horror movies of Anytown, USA. But altogether, this huge variety of cultures and landscapes has made American cinema a candy box for global audiences to pick from. Today, the U.S. movie industry makes more money than any other (although notably, India makes the most films, and China sells the most cinema tickets).
But despite America’s diverse cast of locations, California and New York continue to dominate the U.S. cinematic landscape. While California remains best known for its studio productions, you’d probably guess that New York’s most filmed location is Central Park—and as the new study proves, you’d be right. But what are the most filmed locations in the other states? And what does the cinematic landscape look like when broken down by genre or location type?
Recent data analysis by HawaiianIslands.com identified the U.S. locations with the most film credits not including movie studios. They categorized the top locations by state, type, and genre to rank the most filmed locations in each category.
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Key findings include:
- Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California is the most filmed location with 399 credits
- Pearl Harbor is Hawaii’s top film location with 17 credits
- Union Station in LA has more credits than the White House, the Golden Gate Bridge, or Grand Central Station—but it rarely plays itself
From the desert to the university, America’s landscape of top locations covers every part of U.S. life—and history. The Sonoran Desert is Arizona’s most filmed landscape with a blazing 268 film credits. A desert is a versatile location: in addition to westerns such as McLintock! (1963), the Sonoran’s history of UFO activity makes it an apt sci-fi setting (A Fire in the Sky, 1978). And it even stands in for the Al-Hajarah desert in Iraq for Three Kings (1999).
Hawaii offers two stand-out attractions for filmmakers: the history around Pearl Harbor such as the classic From Here to Eternity (1963) and the good times in paradise portrayed in pictures such as Blue Hawaii (1961). The latter is a classic musical romance starring Elvis Presley who filmed scenes in locations such as Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, Mount Tantalus, and Hanauma Bay. But Pearl Harbor emerges as the top location with 17 credits including Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and the Michael Bay blockbuster Pearl Harbor (2001).
Next, the study identified the most uniquely filmed U.S. location for every top genre—which is to say, the location that is used for a particular genre at a higher rate than others. So, for example, Arizona’s Paiute Wilderness has fewer Western credits than the Sonoran—but the Sonoran’s prominence as a Western location is watered-down by the science-fiction and other genres that are filmed there. The Paiute is America’s most uniquely filmed western location. The 87,900-acre Paiute Wilderness is a remote area in the northwestern corner of Arizona with limited access.
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Hawaii’s top movie location, Pearl Harbor, is also the U.S. location most dedicated to the war genre. Most genres have a top location in California or New York but the adventure genre is another exception. Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah is the top location for that genre. Remember when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets a self-destructing call-to-action in Mission Impossible II (2000)? That’s Dead Horse.
Grand Canyon and Yosemite stand out as the most filmed National Parks in the U.S. with Yellowstone trailing not too far behind. The latter stood in for the Planet Vulcan in the first Star Trek movie (1979). The crew made extensive use of the park’s otherworldly Minerva Hot Springs but mixed imagery with model shots to create Spock’s home planet.
Montana’s Glacier National Park offers a greener and meltier landscape. The national park with the fifth-most film credits, Glacier, has offered a picturesque backdrop in films ranging from the epic box office bomb Heaven’s Gate (1980) to the family dog picture Beethoven’s 2nd (1993).
The beach: What better backdrop to “play out the liquid politics of time in an attempt to find new temporal realities beyond the horizon of representation”? The most filmed beaches are all in California offering stars a chance to show off their bodies while giving their characters an air of vulnerability. And then there’s Adrenochrome (2017), about “a gang of Venice Beach psychos who are killing people to extract a psychedelic compound from their victim’s adrenal glands.”
Venice Beach has the most credits of all beaches but a special mention goes to 10th-placed Dockweiler Beach. As well as trashy titles like Time Trackers (1989) this stretch can count crime movies like Starsky & Hutch (2004), Point Break (1991), and Lethal Weapon (1987) amongst its modest filmography—and eagle-eyed viewers will even catch a glimpse of it at the start of Moon (2009).
A sports stadium comes with its drama baked in—dizzying heights and memories of nail-biting games, the buzz of the crowd. Perfect for the scene in Space Jam (1996) when alien Nerdlucks check out an NBA game at Madison Square Garden and drain some familiar stars of their talent. Madison Square Garden is the most filmed sports stadium in America.
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Fantastic storylines and sports stadiums seem to go together; perhaps it is the sense of spectacle. Angels in the Outfield (1951) one-ups Space Jam by having its invaders come from Heaven itself. Paul Douglas plays Aloysius X. ‘Guffy’ McGovern, an obnoxious and down-on-his-luck baseball coach who is visited by an angel with the task of making McGovern a better coach and human. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the team with scenes shot at the neighboring Wrigley Field stadium, home of rivals the Chicago Cubs.
The nice, orderly museum you got there. Shame if it was to get… messy. Museums in movies are used to contrast calm with the potential for disruption. The template was set at the fifth-placed American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan with Bringing Up Baby (1938) in which Cary Grant’s staid paleontologist has his life (and his museum) turned upside down by Katharine Hepburn and her pet leopard. Night at the Museum (2006) would later add supernatural surrealism to the mix at the same location.
In Manhattan (1979), the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) comes to represent Manhattan itself as well as the best and worst of the gallery experience. On the one hand, Woody Allen’s character is quick to point out pretentiousness and boredom; on the other, the scenes at MOMA put the characters’ lives in perspective and give them a chance to know each other and look twice at the world around them. MOMA is the 10th-most filmed museum in U.S. cinema.
America’s most filmed buildings are mostly an iconic bunch of big-name structures that convey an immediate sense of place and grandeur. No building catches this essence more succinctly and recognizably than the White House which has 91 movie credits. The president-with-a-gun Jack Ryan franchise makes regular use of the building’s exteriors although only documentary crews get to film inside.
Despite the big star names among the top buildings, it is a lesser-known character actor that takes first place. The cavernous Art Deco Union Station in LA is America’s most filmed usually doubling as a different building altogether; a futuristic police station in Blade Runner (1982), a fictional movie studio in Hail, Caesar! (2016), and Demi Moore’s evil lair in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) feature among its 97 roles.
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Whether it’s a cinephile’s pilgrimage or a longing for a glamorous destination that motivates you, visiting America’s most-seen real-life movie locations makes for a high-octane trip—with epic selfies guaranteed.
Better yet? Combine multiple movie locations with exquisite beaches, great golfing, and a sunset spectacle that eclipses Hollywood’s most breathtaking scenes.
I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.
—Francis Ford Coppola