Films (Feature)


Philadelphia’s association with movie-making dates back to the beginning of the film industry, when the city’s Lubin Manufacturing Company created and distributed many of the first generation of silent films. But after the company’s early collapse, the city never again attained a prominent role in the nation’s filmmaking. After Lubin, Philadelphia served as a setting for telling stories set just outside the national centers of power in New York and Washington, D.C., and far away from Los Angeles, the kind of urban stories that needed local color and a unique backdrop.

The Lubin Manufacturing Company was founded in 1902 by Siegmund “Pop” Lubin (1851-1923), an eyeglasses salesman-cum-industrialist who got his start shooting homemade movies in his backyard. Between 1896 and his film company’s demise in 1916, Lubin produced more than 3,000 movies, but Philadelphia itself did not play a prominent role in his filmography even though the company’s imprint was an image of the Liberty Bell.

a sepia tone photograph of Lubinville studio showing glass ceiling and several active sets
Siegmund Lubin built his massive Lubinville studio complex in North Philadelphia in 1910. Here he could work on up to five films simultaneously. He made three thousand films throughout his career, many of them lost to a 1914 fire. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

After Lubin’s brief reign at the top of the motion picture industry, Philadelphia receded from its prominent position in cinema. The city and its environs continued to make periodic appearances, however, usually playing one of three very particular roles. In the mid-twentieth century, visions of haughty, manner-bound Main Line society dominated depictions of Philadelphia. As deindustrialization began in earnest in the 1970s, attention began to shift to the city itself, especially its rotting manufacturing infrastructure and working-class row house neighborhoods. Subsequently, Philadelphia served either as a distinctive backdrop for a few recurring directors, notably M. Night Shyamalan (b. 1970) and David O. Russell (b.1958), and more often as an archetypal urban area. Philadelphia played that role before, but the frequency of the city’s anonymous appearances greatly expanded with the multimillion-dollar tax credits that the state of Pennsylvania began offering to film studios in 2004.


The Main Line dominates depictions of Philadelphia in many mid-century films, which represent the city—or at least its upper crust—as a bastion of old money and rigid, almost European, class distinctions.

The most famous, and highest quality, of these pictures is The Philadelphia Story (1940), which managed to squeeze three of Hollywood’s most indelible stars onto one screen: Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant. The movie is effortlessly classy, the setting all crystalline champagne glasses and book-lined boudoirs. All the action takes place in three estates on the Main Line. There, Hepburn’s heiress, based on real life socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904-95), must choose between the affections of three men. The city itself is never seen and is mentioned only in passing when Grant promises to pick up Stewart’s visiting journalist at a train station in North Philadelphia. (This perhaps betrays an ignorance of the city’s transportation geography on the part of the New York-born playwright and the out-of-town screenwriters who adapted his work).

The Philadelphia Story broke box office records and won critical accolades and a few Academy Awards. But Hepburn lost Best Actress to Ginger Rogers, who won for her star turn in another Main Line-focused Philadelphia film. Largely forgotten since, Kitty Foyle, based on a novel by Philadelphia journalist Christopher Morley, tells the story of a working-class girl who dreams of ascending into the city’s ossified elite class. She comes close to succeeding when she falls into a romance with a scion of a prominent banking family, only to be frozen out and nearly destroyed by the massed forces of snobbery and inherited wealth. In her early life, Rogers’ character haunts the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, depicted as the city’s citadel of privilege. Nearly twenty years later, Paul Newman’s The Young Philadelphians (1959) explored similar tropes, again focusing exclusively on the city’s elites depicted as WASP blue bloods obsessed with class distinctions to an almost un-American degree. To drive home the point, the slogan featured on the film’s posters was “When you rip the upper crust off any city, you’ll find raw flesh underneath.”

The Philadelphia Story is much more forgiving of the American aristocracy, depicting Hepburn’s up-by-the-bootstraps fiancé as the heel, not Grant’s absurdly wealthy dilettante. However, depictions of the city’s social hierarchy as stultified and oppressive in Kitty Foyle and The Young Philadelphians proved to have far greater longevity. As the twentieth century wore on, films focusing on the Main Line or Rittenhouse Square set became rarer, although the unflattering depictions of the city’s old school elite as cruel, prejudiced, and capricious appeared again in Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning HIV/AIDS morality film Philadelphia (1993). In a lighter, though similarly damning vein, Eddie Murphy’s comedy Trading Places sends up Philadelphia’s elite. (Dan Aykroyd’s snotty commodities trader is suitably named Louis Winthorpe III.) But that 1983 film unknowingly highlights one of the reasons for the decline of old, glamorous, rigid Philadelphia society: In the 1980s, old money families were being supplanted by those winning fortunes in the newly financialized economy, focused in New York, and leaving little for Philadelphia’s sclerotic stock market.


A black and white photo of Mayor Frank Rizzo and Sylvester Stallone holding boxing gloves
Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films revolve around the life of a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia boxer. They were largely filmed in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia. In this photograph, Stallone (right) is with Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo in 1976, the year of the movie’s release. (

Philadelphia’s most indelible cinematic scenes are undoubtedly from the gritty, bleak, and oppressive movies of the 1970s and 1980s. When industrial capital definitively escaped the city in the 1970s, countless abandoned factories and warehouses were left looming over suddenly impoverished working-class neighborhoods. Similar vistas of deindustrialization captured the imaginations of filmmakers in New York and Detroit, but Philadelphia more than held its own in this grim competition.

The most famous film of post-industrial grit was, inarguably, 1976’s Rocky. After the parade of cheerier sequels, each seemingly more motivational than the last, it is easy to forget the darkness—literally and figuratively—of the first film starring the “Italian Stallion.” A pall of soot and ash seems to hang over the entire movie, choking Rocky’s row house neighborhood in Kensington. Sylvester Stallone’s (b.1946) iconic character works as an enforcer for a loan shark and is painfully awkward in his interactions with Adrian (who, in turn, works in a shabby little pet store). Everyone seems angry, alienated, and hopelessly stuck in place.

A similar atmosphere pervades the industrial wasteland of David Lynch’s (b.1946) 1977 movie Eraserhead, although here the existential dread and grotesquery is ramped up to an almost unbearable degree. The story, such as it is, focuses on a bizarrely coiffed factory worker, Henry Spencer, who works, lives, and courts women in a space dominated by factories and ex-factories. The movie cannot be properly said to have a narrative, but is instead obsessed with the products of an impoverished, deindustrializing landscape. Factories are still operative in the movie, as mysterious mechanical sounds, clanking and shrilling, adding to the unease of Lynch’s film. Meanwhile the absurd grotesques who populate the landscape are nightmarish caricatures of the characters the filmmaker met while living in an impoverished, violent, dirty corner of the city in the 1960s and 1970s. While Eraserhead (1977) was filmed in Los Angeles a few years after Lynch had moved away from Philadelphia, the vistas of the film are avowedly formed by his experiences in Philadelphia, where he lived in Callowhill and Fairmount, when both of those neighborhoods were more violent and sootier than they became when they subsequently gentrified.

Other classic movies of the era reflected the rising crime wave that threatened to swamp the city, along with much of urban America, and pervasive paranoiac views of authority. In both 1985’s Witness and 1981’s Blow Out, people are murdered horribly in the bathroom of 30th Street Station by figures of supposed law-and-order (a police officer and a government assassin, respectively). When 1995’s 12 Monkeys is not depicting a post-apocalyptic city ruled by animals released from the zoo, it is flashing back to pre-Armageddon days where the city is shown as a dingy and dangerous streetscape scarred by graffiti and abandonment.

Unlike the glitzier Philadelphia films of earlier years, these gritty masterpieces were definitely anchored in the city itself. Although Center City was spotlighted most often, with its array of distinctive landmarks and monuments, these movies also exposed less-seen aspects of Philadelphia. Blow Out even featured a Mummers troupe marching in a Fourth of July parade, while Rocky and, to a lesser extent, Witness showed the old row house blocks that have long housed such a large portion of the city’s poor and working-class residents.


Recent years also witnessed movies set in Philadelphia, or its immediate suburbs, that offered a new window on the city, with neither old money glitz nor postindustrial grime. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) was largely set in white working-class suburbs of Delaware County, including locations in Ridley Park, Upper Darby, Ridley Township, and Lansdowne. There was even a booth in Upper Darby’s Llanerch Diner where Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s characters ate that reported increased trade after the movie’s success. David Russell’s follow-up, American Hustle, focused on the Abscam scandal that took down several prominent Phila-area politicians, but focused on the New Jersey angle instead. M. Night Shyamalan’s movies often took place in the tonier sections of Center City: Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, Old City, or in the city’s stable northwestern neighborhoods. Like almost all Philadelphia movies, the city’s iconic Center City sights were featured prominently. Neighborhoods like West Philadelphia, Kensington, South Philadelphia, or the Northeast were not featured at all. There were a few exceptions, like 2010’s Night Catches Us, set in 1976 and focusing on an ex-Black Panther’s return to his old neighborhood and the dangers and temptations that awaited him there.

a color photograph of the Colonial theatre in Phoenixville, Pa.
Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre was prominently featured in the 1958 sci-fi film The Blob. The theater hosts the annual Blobfest festival, drawing thousands to the area with live music and screenings of “creature features,” capped by a reenactment of the famous scene in which moviegoers flee the theater under attack by the Blob. (Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)

But the city’s distinctive presence in the films of Russell and Shyamalan did not become the norm in the latest era of Philadelphia movies. Instead, the industry increasingly used the city or its environs simply as a stand-in for “Anywhere U.S.A.” That practice dated back at least to 1958 creature feature The Blob, shot in Chester County and Downingtown, but it could have been anywhere. That practice remained the exception, however, until the mid-1980s, with the creation of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office (GPFO). Spearheaded by Sharon Pinkenson, a former wardrobe stylist, the office claimed to have created “$4 billion of economic impact” since its inception, but in the process the city was relegated largely to a secondary film role as backdrop.

Further returns followed Governor Edward Rendell’s (b. 1944) establishment of a $75 million dollar tax credit for filmmakers. In 2009, eleven movies and television shows were shot in Philadelphia resulting in $270 million in direct spending in the region. But few of these movies—Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), The Best and the Brightest (2010), Shooter (2007), Unstoppable (2010), Paranoia (2013)—actually used the city as a setting, instead using it as a stand-in for New York or some other vague metropolis. When The Answer Man (2009) director John Hindman was asked why he filmed in the city, he said, “Because of their wonderful tax incentives.” When the tax credits were reduced under Governor Tom Corbett (b.1949) to $60 million and then $42 million in fiscal year 2009-10, movies that had planned to use Philadelphia moved elsewhere. Brad Pitt’s World War Z (2013) made Glasgow, Scotland, into Philadelphia because the tax credit deal fell through.

Although the tax credits recovered from their post-recession decline and remained stable at $60 million in 2015, their fruits were spread across the state, and Philadelphia was not guaranteed a pride position. Only one major studio picture filmed in Philadelphia in 2015: Ryan Coogler’s (b. 1986) Creed, the seventh sequel to Rocky, focused on the city, a welcome return to the neighborhood-based story telling of the first Rocky. Another major studio production, Clerks III, was shot in Philadelphia, but in this instance Philadelphia stood in, again, for New York. Thus while Philadelphia managed to retain some role in film into the twenty-first century, its position remained a pale shadow of its promising beginnings.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter, editor, and researcher based in Philadelphia. He is a contributing writer at Next City and PhillyVoice. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Filming in the Lubinville Studio, North Philadelphia

Library Company of Philadelphia

One of Philadelphia's earliest film pioneers was Siegmund Lubin, who produced over three thousand silent films in his twenty-year career. Lubin immigrated to America from his native Poland in 1876 and worked as a traveling salesman before settling in Philadelphia in 1884. His early interest in film was precipitated by witnessing a demonstration of Eadweard Muybridge's early motion picture experiments. He purchased his first movie camera in 1896 and patented his Cineograph projector the next year. By 1899, business-minded Lubin had built an empire of film equipment manufacturing and movie theaters spanning the country, all while producing his own films.

In 1910, Lubin Studios constructed its massive North Philadelphia complex, Lubinville, where daylight from glass ceilings and walls allowed him to film up to five features at once. This photo from around 1915 shows the studio with multiple active sets and cameramen. By 1912, Lubin Studios had again outgrown its work space and so opened studios in Betzwood, Pennsylvania, near Valley Forge as well as Los Angeles; Jacksonville, Florida; and Berlin, Germany. A 1914 fire in the Lubinville film vault, fueled by the highly combustible nitrate film stock of the day, destroyed most of Lubin's film library. Two years later, Lubin left the film industry after losing most of his studios to creditors. He died in 1923, all but forgotten by the film industry in which he had once played such a large role.

Lubin Nickelodeon on Chestnut Street

Library Company of Philadelphia

Philadelphia resident Siegmund Lubin's film company was wildly successful in the early twentieth century. Lubin's early fascination with photography led him to become one of the earliest film producers in America. The Lubin Nickelodeon theater on Chestnut Street was an early example of a movie theater built to purpose, unlike others that were converted from stage theaters. It was one in a series of theaters Lubin built across the country to show his vast catalog of silent films. His subject matter ranged from light comedies to more serious topics. In films such as 1908's Yiddisher Boy, Lubin, a Polish-born Jew, tackled anti-Semitism. Lubin was also notorious for copying the films of other early studios, including an almost identical remake of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery. Most of Lubin's catalog was destroyed in a vault fire in 1914. He left the film industry two years later, having produced over three thousand films in his twenty-year career.

The Lubin Nickelodeon building no longer exits, its stretch of Chestnut Street now filled by more-modern--and far less ornate--businesses, mainly retail storefronts topped by a parking garage.

The Colonial Theatre, Phoenixville

Visit Philadelphia

Philadelphia and its surrounding boroughs have been used as locations for many films, often standing in as “Anytown, USA.” The 1958 cult hit The Blob, starring Steve McQueen in his debut role, was filmed in Downingtown and Phoenixville in Chester County. Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre, which opened in 1903, was used as the setting for the climactic scene where the titular Blob, an amorphous creature of unknown provenance, terrorizes the theater's patrons. Fans of the film congregate at the Colonial every July for Blobfest, a three-day festival that includes live music, a short film festival, and screenings of The Blob and other “creature feature” science fiction films, and is highlighted by a reenactment of the iconic scene of patrons fleeing the theater. The festival attracts thousands of visitors. (Photograph by J. Fusco)

Eastern State Penitentiary

Visit Philadelphia

Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1832, has been used as a set for several feature films since it closed as a prison in 1971. Its interiors were used in Terry Gilliam's 1995 dystopian science fiction film 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. In this film, Eastern State was used as a set for scenes taking place in a psychiatric hospital, in which the main characters are incarcerated. 12 Monkeys also filmed in other city landmarks including City Hall and the Richmond Generating Station at Delaware Avenue and Lewis Streets. The role landed Willis a Golden Globe for best actor. Willis, who grew up in South Jersey, would later return to Philadelphia to film M. Night Shyamalan's Academy Award-winning supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense. Eastern State Penitentiary's exterior was later used in the 2009 Michael Bay film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. (Photograph by J. Fusco)

Mayor Frank Rizzo and Sylvester Stallone, 1976

Days before Rocky was scheduled to premiere in New York City and a month before its debut in Philadelphia, Sylvester Stallone and producer Gene Kirkwood visited Philadelphia's City Hall to exchange gifts with Mayor Frank Rizzo. The event on November 19, 1976, was part of a larger promotional tour for Rocky. Stallone and Kirkwood spoke about filming Rocky in Philadelphia over a twenty-eight-day production period earlier in 1976. Stallone is pictured here offering the mayor a set of boxing gloves, while Rizzo presented Stallone with an inscribed Liberty Bell replica. (Caption credit:

Acting became Stallone's primary aspiration while in college, where he excelled in a variety of school plays. Soon he attended the University of Miami to study drama and in 1970 moved back to New York City to pursue an acting career. Prominent roles in large-budget films were difficult to come by, even after Stallone moved to California in 1974. Since his acting career was not going as planned, Stallone started writing movie scripts. He wrote Rocky during the winter of 1975, and in January 1976 he sold it to the film production company United Artists, which agreed to let him star in the film.

The Rocky Statue at the Philadephia Museum of Art

Philadelphia City Archives

Many of the Rocky films, about a working-class Philadelphia debt collector turned championship boxer, were filmed in the city. The first film of the franchise features a famous scene where the Rocky character, during a workout, runs up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This scene is now commemorated with a bronze statue near the foot of these steps and a set of bronze footprints at the top. The statue, seen here during production of the franchise's third film, Rocky III, was donated to the city by Sylvester Stallone after filming wrapped in 1980. For years it was in place outside the Spectrum arena, then was repositioned at the Museum of Art after the Spectrum was demolished. The “Rocky Steps” have become a major tourist attraction and running up them is considered a rite of passage by fans of the film, many of whom also have their photos taken with the nearby statue.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Adams, Sam. “A Phila. Presence at Sundance.” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 22, 2009.

Blumgart, Jake. “David Lynch in Philly, a City He Feared.” Vice, September 22, 2014.

Cipriano, Ralph. “Socialite Who Inspired ‘Phila. Story’ Dies At 90.” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, 1995.

Eckhardt, Joseph P. The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

Irvine, Ian. “The Real Philadelphia Story.” Sunday Telegraph, April 16, 1995.

National Museum of American Jewish History. “Early Filmmaker Siegmund Lubin Celebrated in Now Showing: ‘Pop’ Lubin’s Silent Film Empire.” (PDF)

Rickey, Carrie. “Record year for filmmaking in Philly: Spending in the region is up nearly 200% over ’08, the film office says.” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 23, 2009.

Related Places



Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy