Setting the scene: movie locations

Sometimes breathtaking and at other times iconic, a film’s landscape can be a powerful tool. Vision highlights some of the silver screen’s most memorable backdrops as it looks at the crucial role they play – and the subsequent tourist industries they often help to fuel 

From which station does Harry Potter take the Hogwarts Express? Where does Amélie live? And in which rainy town did Bella meet Edward? Anyone with children will know that the train for Hogwarts leaves from platform 9¾ at London’s Kings Cross. Amélie’s quirky neighbour-hood could only be in Paris – Montmartre to be precise. And you don’t have to be a Twihard to know that truculent teenage girls and dreamy vampires live in the rainy town of Forks, just outside Seattle.

Locations are crucial to our enjoyment of cinema. The ultimate prop, they provide the backdrop to our favourite screen moments. They set the scene for fantasy and help us to suspend disbelief, or anchor characters and plot, encouraging us to invest in the story. Occasionally, they play a starring role in their own right. Take New York, for example – from Annie Hall to Wall Street, King Kong to Taxi Driver, West Side Story to When Harry Met Sally, the city can be seen as a character in its own right. 

But film locations do more than delight and inspire cinema-goers. A director’s choice to use a real location as a movie set can have a very real effect on local – and national – economies.

Logistical task

Shooting a film is serious business, with big budgets to be spent. There are travel and living costs for the cast and crew who must move in to film on site. There is equipment hire, and payment for utilities, services and other overheads, as well as other knock-on costs. For the location, this means increased spending into the economy. And – once a country or a city becomes established as a viable location option for major productions and a local film industry is created – the creation of permanent local jobs.

In a recent report, Oxford Economics surveyed the effects of the film industry on the UK and estimated that in 2011 it contributed more than £4.6bn (US$6.9bn) to UK GDP and supported over 117,000 jobs. Miriam Ferrari, who co-authored the report, explains: “The film industry makes a substantial contribution to the UK economy both directly – with direct employment standing at 43,900 jobs and GDP at £1.6m (US$2.4m) – but also through the multiplier effects relating to the film industry’s procurement. Then there are spending effects from those directly and indirectly employed, and the effects of films on UK tourism, trade and merchandise sales. This means that the total contribution of the core UK film industry is estimated to be 117,400 jobs and £4.6bn (US$6.9bn) to UK GDP”.

The tourism industry, in particular, can reap huge benefits as a result of a town or country being associated with a film. The sheer scale of the exposure that a global smash can bring is hard to overestimate. More than 116 million people bought Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and the films broke box office records.

Filled with endless swooping visuals of the Washington State rainforest, coastline, Seattle cityscape and, of course, the formerly sleepy logging town of Forks, the Twilight franchise shone a dazzling vampy spotlight on the area. Since Twilight fever took hold in 2005, hotel bookings in Forks have increased by a massive 1,000 per cent. An entire Bella-and-Edward based economy has sprung up with merchandise, location tours and photo – and fiscal – opportunities galore.

On the other side of the world, a very different fantasy franchise has also proved a dream for the tourism industry – and the national economy. Peter Jackson’s films of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have played such an important role in New Zealand’s economy that the government has poured significant resources to perpetuating the “Rings effect”.

For fans of the films, New Zealand’s stunning landscape has become intertwined with their vision of Middle Earth, and the trilogy is credited with boosting visitor numbers to the somewhat remote country by up to 40 per cent.

Filming incentives

Unsurprisingly, the government has been quick to capitalise on the boom with serious subsidies and other incentives. For the latest round of Tolkien-inspired films, the Hobbit trilogy, the New Zealand government provided tax breaks worth around US$57m and even changed labour laws in favour of the film-maker in order to ensure that filming was not moved to another country.

However, to look at the effects of a film on any given economy purely in terms of direct impact and tourist dollars would be to overlook the soft-power significance of cinema. It can be hard to quantify, but when a location moves beyond backdrop and takes a starring role in a film, it puts that place firmly on the map. There can be little better branding tool than that of setting a blockbuster in your back yard.

Bringing together the world’s tallest skyscraper and the world’s biggest movie star in 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was an inspired move for Dubai. The film helped boost the international perception of the emirate while also raising awareness of Dubai’s growing status in the global film industry. And where the A-list leads, others follow, as lead actor Tom Cruise said at the time, “Many people have asked us about travelling here and what it was like. People are very interested in coming here to shoot.”