Cinema was born in France, but it grew up in Hollywood. Filmmakers of tremendous 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 (the Minnesota of 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 our new study proves, you’d be right. But what are the most filmed locations in all the other states? And what does the cinematic landscape look like when broken down by genre or location type?
What We Did
HawaiianIslands.com analyzed IMDb data to identify the U.S. locations with the most film credits, not including movie studios. We categorized the top locations by state, type, and genre to rank the most filmed locations in each category.
- 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.’
Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor Beats Local Beaches for Top Location
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, of course, the Michael Bay blockbuster Pearl Harbor (2001).
Mission Impossible Location is America’s Top Adventure Backdrop
Next, we 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.
Hawaii’s top movie location, Pearl Harbor, is also the U.S. location most dedicated to the war genre. Naturally, 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)? Dead Horse.
Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks Are Most Filmed
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).
California Beaches Dominate American Movie Beach Landscape
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).
Madison Square Garden is America’s No. 1 Sports Stadium Movie Star
A sports stadium comes with its own 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.
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.
American Museum of Natural History has a History of Film
Nice, orderly museum you got there. Shame if it was to get… messy. Quite the opposite to stadiums, 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.
LA Station Has More Movie Credits than Any Other Building
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.
Flights, Camera … Action!
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. We’ve put our full data in the interactive table below to help you identify the locations worth a visit — you can sort them by genre, state and location type.
METHODOLOGY & SOURCES
HawaiianIslands.com used IMDb Advanced Search to pull the filming location data for all movies, TV movies, TV series, and mini-series from 01.01.1900 to 31.12.2020 and removed all the movie studios, movie ranches, and non-U.S. locations from the dataset.
Next, we counted the number of appearances for each location and categorized them by state. For each state, we manually cleaned up the top of the state list, dropping broader locations like cities and neighborhoods, allowing us to focus on more granular locations like landmarks and points of interest.
We also found the most uniquely popular filming locations by genre (i.e., which filming locations are significantly more popular for specific genres). For this, we calculated the proportional increase of a location’s appearance rate in a particular genre compared to its appearance rate across all genres. Finally, we manually selected the top location by category, including museums, buildings, sports stadiums, beaches, and national parks. While choosing the buildings, we limited our search to the American Institute of Architects’ list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.”