It’s commonplace for movies, especially ones with the biggest budgets, to use CGI and production trickery to transform a piece of land in a city with a useful tax break program into any setting the plot requires. But there’s nothing quite like shooting on location.
Just the right spot, like LA’s Griffith Observatory, imbues the movie with a sense of place that adds depth to the storytelling. It’s hard to recreate that feeling if you shoot the entire movie on a soundstage.
What are the most popular movie locations in the world?
The booking website Giggster released a Movie Location Report that lists the most popular places to shoot films around the world. Their findings are based on the movies linked to each location, state, or continent in IMDb‘s Advanced Title Search.
Of the top 20 locations, Giggster reports, only the top five places have served as settings for over 100 movies. Here they are:
5. Trafalgar Square (104 movies)
Trafalgar Square has been a signature London landmark for centuries. So it comes as no surprise that the site has been used in 104 films up to this point. Most of the list is made up of distinctly British works. Multiple installments of the James Bond franchise, 28 Days Later, and Children of Men appear in the top 20.
But the appeal of Trafalgar Square also extends to stranger movies, like An American Werewolf in London, The Great Muppet Caper, and Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. (Yes, that’s a real movie.)
4. Niagara Falls (143 movies)
An iconic piece of geography on the border of Ontario and New York, the awe-inspiring waterfalls of Niagara Falls provide a compelling backdrop for storytelling. One such movie is Niagara, a 1953 noir thriller shot in timelessly brilliant Technicolor that launched the film career of a young Marilyn Monroe. The site was also used for Superman II, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
3. Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park (207 movies)
The distinct look of Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park has long convinced productions of all sizes that they should shoot there. The park has featured in multiple Star Trek movies and TV shows, Blazing Saddles, and Westworld.
2. Bronson Canyon (236 movies)
This section of LA’s Griffith Park remains an especially popular location for science fiction and western movies. The original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Ford’s The Searchers, and Palm Springs were all shot in the area.
1. Central Park (352 movies)
The top spot goes to Central Park, which has given a natural stage to movies since 1908. There are too many timeless classics to name all of them: Ghostbusters, John Wick, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Elf, and Raging Bull are just a sampling of the greats that set scenes in this location.
Movies set at LA’s Griffith Observatory make more money than any other filming location
For the list of locations that have the biggest successes at the box office, Giggster used the average gross income of the top three most popular films that used the location. By that metric, the Griffith Observatory is associated with more mainstream popularity than any other venue.
Since it was built in 1935, 64 movies have shot at the Observatory, the first one being a Western serial called The Phantom Empire that was released the same year. The space became a cinematic destination after it was the setting for two critical scenes in Rebel Without a Cause.
Other movies that used the Griffith Observatory include The Terminator, Back to the Future, and Devil in a Blue Dress. What makes the site so attractive? First, the Observatory itself has a classic aesthetic. But it also has offers a heightened view of Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean. It has a naturally cinematic view of one of the biggest cities in the world.
The top five money-making filming locations
The other locations that tend to align with financial success share a few similarities with the most popular locations. The Old Royal Naval College in London ($249.8 million), Niagara Falls ($212.26 million), Trafalgar Square ($209.7 million), and Monument Valley ($144.5 million) round out the top five.
These lists spell out the obvious fact about the film industry: It heavily caters to the western world. North America (1,354 filming locations) and Europe (946 locations) have four times as many places featured in movies as the rest of the list combined.
That dominance is mirrored when you see which states are used most heavily for production. New York has 381 associated locations. Arizona (91), Massachusetts (25), Utah (18), and Pennsylvania (12) follow in behind, but are nowhere close to the Big Apple.