Cities standing in for other cities in films and TV shows

A longer discussion of how holiday films treat big cities includes information on where these films are made:

The irony, of course, is that these movies that portray the cruel hustle of big cities and the virtues of small-town life are filmed in big cities that get high marks for livability. Christmas Town, like many products of the holiday rom-com industrial complex, was shot in the made-for-cable Christmas movie wonderland of Vancouver, British Columbia, which boasts an abundance of studios and proximity to a variety of urban and rural shooting locations. Vancouver is also a perennial high-scorer in urban happiness and well-being rankings, a place that Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery singles out for praise in his book Happy City. (As this first-hand report from the Christmas Town shoot reveals, conditions on set were somewhat less magical: Filmed on a suburban backlot during a heat wave, the movie used leftover ice from Vancouver’s fish markets as a stand-in for snow.)

Other films rely on Toronto, another Canadian metro with enviable livability scores, to play the urban heavy; while certain landmarks may stand out to local viewers, the mostly American Christmas-movie audience is none the wiser. They’re too busy inhaling the on-screen, small-town romance that Hallmark and its kin have carefully crafted to make us believe miracles happen—just not in the big city.

Many films are made in these locations given the cost of filming in Canada versus the United States as well as the ability of these Canadian cities to stand in for many American cities.

Instead of looking at just holiday films, how many American viewers notice anything amiss when they are actually looking at Vancouver and Toronto on the screen? Would they even notice? Between the use of different cities plus the use of backlots, a good number of television shows and films may include very few to no shots from the location depicted on-screen.

Does this matter in the long run for viewers? On one hand, not at all. Relatively few on-screen depictions of places actually involve much unique material from those places. Think of the average television show: the activity largely takes place within buildings – homes, offices, restaurants/coffee shops, and the like – and involves a limited set of characters. The show may be set in a prominent location yet it could take place in any large city (outside of some establishing shots or an occasional reference to local culture). On the other hand, seeing deplaced places – generic cities and neighborhoods – suggests every place is similar. Does it matter that Full House took place in San Francisco or How I Met Your Mother took place in New York City? Not really. An on-screen big city is largely like any other on-screen big city.

If holiday films need generic cities and neighborhoods, Vancouver and Toronto can work. If they truly wanted unique locations and let those locations help drive the plot – such that a story from Omaha would differ from one in Phoenix or Charleston – then the movies themselves would be richer and more complex.

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