Reuters/Kevork Djansezian

In honor of the Oscars, we tried mapping where 2014's biggest movies were set and shot. What we learned surprised us.

Many great films draw inspiration and drama from the places in which they are set. Imagine Chinatown, Taxi Driver, or Lost in Translation taking place anywhere besides Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. If filmmaking, as film critic Mark Cousins has put it, is “the art of making us feel that we’re there,” then movie settings could hardly be more important.

So as Hollywood gets ready to celebrate itself at Sunday’s 87th Annual Academy Awards, I thought it would be both fun and interesting to examine how a film’s setting may or may not affect its financial fortunes and critical reception.

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) colleagues Ian Gormely and Isabel Ritchie, we investigated where 2014’s top grossing and most critically acclaimed films were set, and then contrasted this with where they were actually filmed. We tracked worldwide box office results via Box Office Mojo. To gauge the critical reception of those 100 films, we tallied the average of their ratings on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. We identified filming locations from the Internet Movie Database and movie settings from online data sources and by watching film trailers ourselves.

The map below, by Ritchie, charts the places where 2014’s top 100 grossing films were set by state and nation.

(Martin Prosperity Institute)

The United States was, by far, the most popular setting among high grossing films in 2014 by a striking—if not surprising—margin. Overall, 77 of the top grossing films were at least partially set in the U.S. Of these, 42 films were set entirely in the U.S. and 35 were set both inside and outside the country. Another 23 were set entirely outside the U.S. Eight had unspecified settings, and 15 were set in fictional locations.

The biggest dots, representing the largest number of films, are in New York and in and around Los Angeles. That makes sense: L.A. and New York are not just the two largest cities in the U.S., they are also the cities that are most central to the film industry. Underrepresented are the states of the Midwest and the Sunbelt. Europe takes up the vast majority of international settings, with Paris and London in the lead.

The growing importance of the overseas box office may explain some of these international settings. Of the top 20 grossing films, 19 made more than half their money outside the United States. China is currently the world’s second biggest film market, and four of the top 100 highest grossing films of 2014 were at least partially set in China. Each of these films made 70 percent or more of their worldwide box office totals overseas. Attempts to court the Chinese market have included shooting scenes in China, casting famous Chinese actors in supporting roles, and even re-editing films to position the country and its people in a more favorable light.

The table below drills down a bit further, listing the settings for the 20 highest grossing films of 2014.

Settings for 2014’s Top 20 Grossing Films Worldwide

Film Global Box Office 2014 Gross (in millions) City Setting
Transformers: Age of Extinction $1087 Texas; Chicago; Hong Kong; Antarctica
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies $787 Middle Earth (fictional)
Guardians of the Galaxy $773 Not specified; Space
Maleficent $758 The Moors (fictional)
X-Men: Days of Future Past $748 China; New York; Paris; Washington, D.C.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $714 Washington, D.C.; New Jersey
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $709 New York
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes $709 San Francisco
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 $707 Panem (fictional)
Interstellar $663 Midwestern U.S.; Space
How to Train Your Dragon 2 $619 Berk (fictional)
Godzilla (2014) $529 Japan; San Francisco
Rio 2 $500 Rio de Janeiro
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) $477 New York
The LEGO Movie $469 Lego Universe (fictional)
Lucy $459 Paris; Taipei
Big Hero 6 $410 San Fransokyo (fictional)
Edge of Tomorrow $369 London; Paris; Bavarian Alps
Gone Girl $365 North Carthage, Missouri (fictional); New York
Noah $363 Not specified
The Maze Runner $341 The Glade (fictional)

When reading this chart, please note these figures only refer to 2014 worldwide gross box office earnings. Many films can and have continued to add to their box office totals in 2015.

Just half of the 20 top grossing movies were set in real places. Eight of them were at least partially set in fictional locations, like The Hobbit’s Middle Earth or The Hunger Games’ Panem. Three films—Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar and Noah—do not specify where their stories take place.

Of the films with real-world settings, New York was the most common, appearing in four movies, followed by Paris, with three films, and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., with two films each. Six of the films with specific real world settings were set in locations outside the U.S., while four were set wholly in America. Only four on the top 20 list are set in a single real city. Of those, two were set in New York.

*****

Of course, the places where movies are set and where they are filmed are not always the same. Movies regularly use one city to stand in for another, often because some cities and states offer studios generous tax breaks that others won’t. The next map shows the actual filming locations of 2014’s 100 top grossing movies.

(Martin Prosperity Institute)

No big surprise, the biggest dots are in New York and in and around Los Angeles. Twelve of the top 100 highest grossing films of 2014 were at least partially filmed in Canada, where Toronto and Vancouver often stand in for U.S. cities; but not a single film of the top 100 box office winners was set in Canada. Of the top 100 grossing films, 38 were shot entirely in the U.S. and 45 were at least partially shot in an international locale.

Things change when we look at the settings for the most critically acclaimed films. Now, having a film set in a real location appears to matter more. The table below lists the city settings for the 20 most critically successful films of 2014.

Settings for the Top 20 Critically Acclaimed Films Worldwide

Film Critical Score Setting Filming Location
The Grand Budapest Hotel 0.9 Zubrowka (fictional) Saxon, Germany; Krakow, Poland; Dresden, Germany  
The LEGO Movie 0.895 Lego Universe (fictional) Cartoon
Snowpiercer 0.895 On a train (not specified) Czech Republic, Austria
The Wind Rises 0.86 Japan Cartoon
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 0.845 San Francisco Campbell River, BC; New Orleans; Vancouver; San Francisco
How to Train Your Dragon 2 0.84 Berk (fictional) Cartoon
Guardians of the Galaxy 0.835 Not specified; space London; Surrey, England
Gone Girl 0.835 Missouri; New York Missouri; New York
X-Men: Days of Future Past 0.825 China; New York; Paris; Washington, D.C. Montreal, Quebec; Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec
Big Hero 6 0.815 San Fransokyo (fictional) Cartoon
The Imitation Game 0.81 Milton Keynes, England United Kingdom
Edge of Tomorrow 0.805 London; Paris; Bavarian Alps London
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 0.795 Washington, D.C.; New Jersey Cleveland, Ohio; Oakland, California; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles
22 Jump Street 0.775 Not specified San Juan, Puerto Rico; New Orleans
Chef 0.77 Brentwood, California; Los Angeles; Miami; Austin; New Orleans California; Miami; Austin; New Orleans
The Theory of Everything 0.755 Cambridge, England; Bordeaux, France United Kingdom
The Fault in our Stars 0.75 Indianapolis; Amsterdam Pittsburgh; Amsterdam
John Wick 0.75 New York New York
The Book of Life (2014) 0.745 San Angel, Mexico Cartoon
Interstellar 0.73 Midwestern U.S.; Space Iceland; Calgary, Lethbridge, Canmore and Okotoks, Alberta
Noah 0.725 Not specified Iceland; New York; Washington; Mississippi

Notice the difference from the list of top financially performing films. Notably, fully half of the films from previous list now disappear. And more than half of the critically acclaimed movies—12 films in all—are set in specific, real locations. New York remains the favored setting, appearing in three films, followed by Paris, which appears in two. Seven films were at least partially set inside the U.S., while just five are set wholly in America. Only five of the most acclaimed films have totally fictional settings, while four are unspecified. Perhaps real-world settings make film critics take certain movies more seriously?

In terms of shooting locations, just five were shot entirely in the U.S., while 11 were filmed at least partially outside of America. Four were filmed in and around London, while two each were shot in New York and New Orleans.

*****

When all is said and done, three cities—New York, L.A. and London—dominated as movie settings in 2014, both among the top grossing and the most acclaimed films. Even as the world goes global, it’s clear that many film-goers enjoy (or at least tolerate) seeing the western world’s biggest and most famous cities on their movie screens.

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