The spot where Jimmy Stewart saved Kim Novak in “Vertigo” is at Fort Point, just under the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A few miles down the bay is Alcatraz, where Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery prevented missiles from launching and Clint Eastwood may or may not have escaped. Up on shore, there’s Coit Tower, City Hall, the Transamerica Pyramid, all those hills that have been the setting for so many chase scenes.
Filled with iconic landmarks, breathtaking scenery and a wide range of locations, San Francisco has a long history as a favorite site for filmmakers — and the movie buffs who want to see the places where their favorite scenes were filmed.
“So many people are so familiar with the icons, with the landmarks of San Francisco,” said Bryan Rice, owner of San Francisco Movie Tours. “You can show the Golden Gate Bridge, you can show the Transamerica Pyramid in the background, show these different places where people are familiar with and it draws people in.”
The Bay Area’s moviemaking history goes back to the beginning of film, to Eadweard Muybridge’s study of a horse galloping in Palo Alto, widely regarded as the first motion picture ever made.
Charlie Chaplin’s movies and many of the first silent films were shot near San Francisco, along with parts of “The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie” released in 1927.
Alfred Hitchcock loved shooting in the Bay Area, as did George Lucas and Clint Eastwood.
It’s easy to see why: The bay, the bridge, the landmarks, and a variety of elevations for interesting angles to shoot from. Locations are diverse: downtown, the waterfront, the Painted Ladies Victorian homes, Chinatown, the gritty Tenderloin. Film noir can be shot in the fog; a screwball comedy can bounce along hilly streets. Many films shot in San Francisco are written for the city, so it, in a sense, becomes a character in the movie.
“All the producers I talk to say they would love to shoot here because visually it’s such a beautiful place that it makes anyone’s film better looking,” said Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission.
But the number of big-production movies shot in San Francisco has tapered off with the rise of digital technology. Instead of going on location, producers can recreate the city’s look in studios and with computers at less cost. It’s also cheaper to shoot in other locales, from the American South to Canada, with some states offering better tax breaks for production companies than California does. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” released in 2011, was set in San Francisco but shot in British Columbia.
“It’s very hard to compete with that because film production companies, like any smart businessperson, are trying to get the best bang for their buck,” Greason Robbins said. “When you get 30-35 percent back on your film expenses when you shoot in one of those other states, you kind of have to go there. It’s frustrating.”
San Francisco still attracts movie-makers, with more than 100 films shot here in the last decade and 16 last year, but more are independent or from small local companies than in the past. Still the city’s long history of film offers plenty of iconic spots to visit.