Top 12 Cities to Launch Your Acting Career
When one is starting out on the journey in acting, the conventional wisdom for decades has been to choose between New York or Los Angeles. East Coast or West Coast. Broadway or Hollywood.
In the last 20 years, other cities have competed for films as a production hub: Vancouver, Toronto, New Orleans, Chicago. In the last 3 years alone, Atlanta has become the busiest production center in the country. There are pros and cons of living in each one of these locations; and one might feel forced to move to one of these hubs.
The problem is that many move to a bigger market before they are ready to. Why not begin your career in a market you’re already at, or in a market closer to you, with less competition. The cities listed below have just enough work in them, between studio projects filming on location, corporate industrial videos, regional commercials, and top-notch regional theatre. Yes, with each locale- there will be a proverbial ceiling you’ll hit career-wise, it is then and only then, there’ll be a personal choice to move to a bigger market.
Pre-Broadway runs of new drama often start at the Huntington Theatre or the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, Connecticut. They are great stepping stones to earn one’s actor’s equity card. In the city of Boston itself, natives Ben Affleck and Mark Whalberg are the John Hughes, Spike Lee of town- committed on shooting there as often as possible.
Often enough, most movies shot there, actually take place there in the plot/storyline. The authenticity of Boston in its streets, its architecture, its neighborhoods, and its dialect can hardly be duplicated elsewhere. Patriots Day, The Town, The Departed, Spotlight, Black Mass all exhibit this. So, when the next Boston film needs the local actor for a parish priest, a Red Sox worker, or Southie- here’s your chance.
The City of Brotherly love will forever be attached to Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa. Having 6 Rocky films and 2 spinoffs (Creed) shoot there in the last 45 years. Philly native M. Night Shyamalan has filmed all of his projects there dating back to his classic debut The Sixth Sense. Most recently, one of Chadwick Boseman’s last roles in 21 Bridges shot there.
While many local actors will catch a train to NYC for work, there is a sense of looking out for one’s own when one of the few projects do come to town. Commercials, industrials, and the like will often request a PA local and require you have the ID to prove it.
The home of beloved Children’s television icon Fred Rogers and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright August Wilson has been surprisingly busy over the last couple of years; Fences, Last Flag Flying, Concussion, The Dark Knight Rises, Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, Southpaw, and The Last Witch Hunter just to name a few.
Some titles intentionally are drawn to the character of Pittsburgh’s working-class roots, while others can substitute multiple locations due to the city’s urban landscape (#1 in bridges) and rugged hills. The iconic sports teams of the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins bring their own cottage industry of media. Carnegie Mellon has one of the strongest university theatre programs.
Usually, if it shoots here or works here, its either a David Simon Project (The Wire, The Corner, Homicide: Life on the Street) or a story about the federal government (House of Cards). Speaking of government, I am sure there are a ton of PSA’s, print ads, voiceovers, industrials, documentaries, and live shoots that involve the inner workings of Congress, The Pentagon, The Supreme Court, or The White House.
If you are willing to drive 2 hours south, Richmond, Virginia has a robust medical-industrial scene with WebMD, and also shoots several series, including The Good Lord Bird. Richmond usually doubles for period Washington D.C., especially the 19th century.
The Pacific Northwest’s largest cities are a 3-hour drive from each other. They also are close proximity to Vancouver as a major production hub (even though its an entirely different country with its own union and rules). Portland shoots more projects, in fact utilizing the entire state of Oregon, probably with the classic Steven Speilberg The Goonies being the most recognizable.
In recent years, Portlandia, and Grimm were episodic series that provided long-term work. The renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival makes its home in Ashland. However, don’t throw Washington state to the side- being the corporate headquarters of Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Costco, Expedia, Eddie Bauer, and Alaska Airlines.
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are the stalwarts of New Mexico TV/film, but the region has seen an explosion of filming in the last decade. Buoyed by infrastructure investment in 4 sound stages: Albuquerque Studios, Nob Hill, 1-25, and Camel Rock (the first-ever Native-American owned studio).
The New Mexico film community is here to stay. So if you don’t mind the desert life, this could be for you. On the plus side for Native American actors, certain projects specifically shoot there looking to cast Native Americans.
All 3 cities are within a 3-hour drive of each other. Austin has a robust indie film scene and is home to the popular South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin TV Festival, and Austin Film Festival. From indie classics like Dazed & Confused and Slacker to major studio movies like Miss Congeniality and True Grit, Austin is a beloved home for film and tv production.
Dallas actually has the most filmed projects, albeit nearly two dozen has a connection to the JFK assassination. Like other cities, multiple Fortune 500 companies supply industrials, commercials, print. In Dallas: Exxon Mobil, McKesson, AT&T, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, D.R. Horton, J.C. Penny, GameStop, Kimberly-Clark, and Texas Instruments.
In Houston: NASA, Phillips 66, Sysco, ConocoPhillips, Academy Sports, Men’s Warehouse. In Austin: Apple, Charles Schwab, Dell, and eBay.
While Texas as a state has been hot and cold when it comes to film tax incentives; each city brings its own output to sustain the others.
Not at all a film/tv hub, but a strong theatre scene with the world-renowned Gutherie Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre Company, and Penumbra Theatre plus many others. Target has its world headquarters there and will shoot its commercials and print ads (some models are NYC based). Other corporate homes include 3M, U.S.
Bank, Best Buy, United Health, General Mills, Ecolab, Land O’Lakes, Ameriprise, Xcel Energy, Hormel, Toro, H. B. Fuller, and Donaldson. It is far enough away from Chicago to sustain its own talent.
Commercials rue the day here, they cast a net as far wide to Atlanta and Denver, but mostly from Chicago. Productions would rather cast local, as to not occur per diem charges.
The grandaddy organization of the region is none other than the Anheuser-Busch company (Budweiser). Other companies that call the area home include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Edward Jones Investments, Build-A-Bear, Energizer, Adam’s Mark, Alamo Rent a Car, National Car Rental, Panera Bread, Save-A-Lot, and Panera Bread.
The capital of Tennessee is the heart of the Country Music, which yields its own cottage industry of music videos, commercials, promos, etc. While occasionally you’ll have a show like ABC’s Nashville shoot there- it is also a commercial haven for Nissan, Bridgestone, Cracker Barrel, Iheartmedia, and Tractor.
Special note many state capitols produce the state lottery commercial there. Knoxville is home to Jupiter Entertainment, a production company that specializes in true crime re-enactment drama. At any given time, over 10 shows could be shooting there, needing suspect, detective, witness, family, and victim roles.
Those shows are then distributed on Lifetime, Oxygen, BET, TV One, and National Geographic. Just south of Knoxville is the mountain resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The wacky amusement attractions there can be a source of employment for the artists’ community.
Have an Antebellum/Civil War/Slavery production? More than likely, it’ll film here. Both cities have period architecture and vegetation (like grand Oak trees). The two cities are about a 2-hr drive from each other. Because of Georgia’s generous tax breaks, smaller towns near Savannah like Saint Simmons Island, Brunswick, Jekyll Island are getting in on the action too.
In between, you have the coastal town resort Hilton Head Island; a place that relies heavily on tourists, but which also will have a cottage industry on brochures, promo videos, and billboards.
Since the North Carolina film scene explosive heyday of the 1980s, when movie producer Dino De Laurentis brought Firestarter to the city and built EUE/Screen Gem Studios along with it, Wilmington has been a quiet force in dozens of films catering to a backdrop of locales, bringing in actors as far away as Atlanta.
It can be said though that Wilmington based movies usually deal with a romantic coastal town plot or waterfront thriller. Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill were the stalwarts of the region for many years. Recently you had Reprisal, Good Behavior, and Under the Dome.
About the Author
Originally from Chicago. Kevin's love for film & Television and travel started at an early age. He went on to study at the University of Southern California for Theatre & Cinema-Television business. Combining both passions has resulted into visiting 15 countries, 43 states, and working in 11 markets...