The Space Needle may not be featured as prominently in film and television as New York City’s Statue of Liberty or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. But if you’ve seen enough movies, chances are you know exactly what the pointed landmark looks like without ever having to step foot in Seattle. What you might not know is that these days, depending on what you’re watching, the Space Needle you see might be a CGI fake. This is because most shows and movies set in Seattle are no longer filmed in Seattle. They are now filmed in Canada.

Over the past couple of decades, Vancouver, BC, has slowly become Seattle’s film and television stand-in, from the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey films to Grey’s Anatomy. This has amounted to a local industry “brain drain” and a drying up of economic opportunity for filmmakers in the Seattle area.

But if recent developments are any indication, this trend could begin to reverse. Local filmmakers and the city itself are not happy with the state of things. That’s why last month, the Seattle City Council created a Film Commission to try to take back its once-thriving local industry. Spearheaded by Councilmember Sara Nelson, who wrote the legislation that led to the council’s unanimous vote for its creation, the Seattle Film Commission will propose programs and support policies to bring the local film industry back with an eye toward supporting historically underrepresented groups.

Hollywood Films Used to Shoot in Seattle

Vancouver’s film industry “brain drain” is a fairly recent trend. Back in the 1970s, films set in Seattle actually filmed there. Even ones with major Hollywood stars. Warren Beatty played a TV journalist who falls into a deep rabbit hole of conspiracies after witnessing the assassination of a presidential candidate on top of the Space Needle in the opening scene of The Parallax View (1974). The political thriller was baked in the kind of post-Watergate paranoia that director Alan J. Pakula perfected in his following film, All the President’s Men (1976).

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While Beatty was running around on top of the Space Needle, John Wayne was down below, speeding through the streets of Seattle in the action cop neo-noir, McQ (1974). Director John Sturges took Don Siegel’s approach from Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood running around the actual streets of San Francisco, shooting most of McQ with Wayne driving around real locations throughout the city to capture Seattle’s industrial seaport grittiness (along with The Duke’s longtime stunt double Chuck Roberson and stunt driver Hal Needham). As a result, McQ now functions as a legitimate historical document of what Seattle really looked like in the mid-1970s.

Hollywood films continued to shoot in Seattle well into the 1990s. Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Nora Ephron’s classic romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, was actually filmed in Seattle, apart from the scenes set in other cities. Likewise, Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles was also filmed in the actual city in which it was set in. With Singles, Crowe captured Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene, which is only fitting for a city known more for its music than its filmmaking.

The Twilight Saga Filmed In Rural Areas Around Vancouver

Part of Vancouver’s filmmaking “brain drain” comes down to the fact that Vancouver is roughly 140 miles (or 230 km) north of the Emerald City and shares the lush landscape of the American Pacific Northwest. Its natural surroundings make Vancouver a visually-convincing double for Seattle. Lots of evergreen trees.

After the first Twilight (2008) movie filmed in actual locations across Washington state as well as Oregon, the second film in the series The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010) moved production to British Columbia. The wooded coastlands surrounding the Vancouver area acted as a stand-in for the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, where the Twilight films and novels are set. So when Bella jumped off the cliff in New Moon, Kristen Stewart (really a cliff-diver with her CGI face) landed in water hundreds of miles to the north.

The Fifty Shades Trilogy Used the City of Vancouver as a Ringer for Seattle

Vancouver’s urban terrain also shares a similar history with Seattle as a lucrative seaport, making the city a dead ringer for Seattle. While the Fifty Shades trilogy was set in Seattle, each entry was filmed largely in (you guessed it) Vancouver. Only the third movie, Fifty Shades Freed (2018), featured an extended sequence filmed in Seattle proper.

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Freed contained a bizarre ransom subplot concerning a fellow orphan boy, now a jealous and unhinged grown man demanding compensation from Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan), who was adopted by rich parents who handed him his start into becoming a Jeff Bezos figure, the real-life billionaire Seattleite bookseller. This subplot culminated in Freed’s climactic car chase near the Pike Place Public Market. The chase is an unlikely homage to the famous car chase in William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). This ransom subplot (which originated from E.L. James’ 2012 novel of the same name) turned the third Fifty Shades film halfway into an action-revenge flick after the first two films were strictly erotic dramas.

The bromantic dramedy/bummer movie 50/50 (2011), starring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was set in Seattle. But it was shot entirely in Vancouver. Having grown up in the city, Rogen never lost his hometown pride. He frequently champions the local film scene, electing to film in the city whenever possible. Early drafts of the Pineapple Express (2008) screenplay, which he co-wrote with fellow Vancouverite and creative partner Evan Goldberg, featured Vancouver as its setting rather than LA. And in 2018, Rogen even voiced the announcements for the city’s public light rail system.

​​​​​​The city’s visual similarity to Seattle is not the only reason Rogen and others in Hollywood felt the pull to film up north. It’s not even the main reason. If you want to know how Vancouver swept up all that talent in recent years, just do what the anonymous source Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward to do in All the President’s Men, “Follow the money.”

Vancouver Beat Seattle by Offering Better Tax Incentives for Film Productions

While Vancouver has much in common with its American lookalike city, a three hours drive to the south, it differs from Seattle in at least one key way: tax incentives. Vancouver attracted major Hollywood talent by offering tax breaks to film and television productions that were far more significant than those available in Washington state. In her article for The Seattle Times, Grace Gorenflo said:


“According to research from the Vancouver Economic Commission, film productions spent $4.1 billion in British Columbia in 2019 alone. In Washington, between 2007 and 2021, the state’s incentive program helped fund just $162 million worth of productions.”

The Seattle City Council hopes its new Film Commission can bring its local film industry back. Even if they are successful, reversing this trend would take years at the earliest. So, for now, the next time you think you’re seeing Seattle in a show or movie, take a look at IMDb to see if Vancouver tricked you again.