Why Vancouver is always a stand-in for SF in movies and TV

When Fox’s “Alcatraz” premiered in 2012, San Francisco’s busy street corners and famous island-bound prison were hallmarks of the production. Curiously, the show wasn’t actually shot in San Francisco, but several hundred miles north — in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

“Alcatraz” isn’t the only show set in San Francisco but filmed in Vancouver. Hulu’s “Woke,” the CW’s “Kung Fu” and Netflix’s “The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco” are among the many TV shows that are set in San Francisco but — you guessed it — predominantly shot in Vancouver. 

Why not simply shoot the shows in their script’s settings? It’s a complicated answer that involves infrastructure, tax incentives and myriad other complications. 

Geoff Teoli, the acting Vancouver film commissioner, thinks there’s a series of factors that make Vancouver an attractive place to film compared to other locations. 

“I think that the ability to have a diversity of looks, or a world of looks, is really what supports a lot of decision-makers and producers to come here,” he told SFGATE recently. “[Filmmakers] can use Vancouver to portray a whole variety of locations around the world, the Bay Area, of course, but up and down the coast as well.”

Coastal Vancouver serves as an apt stand-in for the city by the bay. It has plentiful gorgeous Victorians that look just like something you’d find in San Francisco. It even gets a fine layer of fog when the weather is just right. 

A handful of major blockbusters set in San Francisco were filmed largely in Vancouver. Among them are 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes,” 2014’s “Godzilla,” various “X-Men” films, Ali Wong’s “Always Be My Maybe” and Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes.” In these various films, the British Columbia region serves as an unmistakable stand-in for San Francisco, and in many of them, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two cities. 

The colourful Strathcona district of Vancouver, one of British Columbia's oldest residential areas, where many of the houses have been returned to their original Victorian or Edwardian selves.

The colourful Strathcona district of Vancouver, one of British Columbia’s oldest residential areas, where many of the houses have been returned to their original Victorian or Edwardian selves.

benedek/Getty Images

But San Francisco isn’t the only city Vancouver has mimicked in recent productions. Teoli said film settings shot in Vancouver run the gamut, from New England and Maine to Hong Kong and Antarctica. He said it’s not uncommon to see 40 to 60 productions filmed in the region each year. 

“It’s not that San Francisco isn’t a great place to film, but Vancouver has so many options that it certainly helps,” he said. 

Teoli also noted that Vancouver has a robust production apparatus, including stages, crews and equipment rentals. The infrastructure has been established for some time now, at least since the 1970s. Things really took off in the 1980s, Teoli said, with the filming of “MacGyver” and “21 Jump Street” in the area. 

“The infrastructure both in facilities and stage space that have been developed over the decades and continue to develop is a really important incentive to producers,” Teoli said. 

There’s also the matter of tax breaks. Vancouver offers a series of tax credits for productions filmed there, ranging from 10% to 35%. California, including San Francisco, offers similar tax breaks, as well. 

“Productions generally go where they can get the best tax credits,” said Susannah Robbins, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission. “Vancouver has a strong incentive program which has no cap — no limit on the amount of money productions can be given each year.”

“This means that production companies can count on getting a certain percent of the production costs reimbursed, with no limit on the funds,” she continued. “In California, our state tax credit is good, but there is a limit of $330 million per year.”

The SF Film Commission offers an incredibly attractive rebate programs, one of the most robust in the country, to inspire films to shoot in the city rather than Hollywood. To qualify, films with a budget under $3 million must film 55% of their production in the city, while films with a budget greater than $3 million must film 65%. If accepted into the program, any fees paid to the city, up to $600,000, will be waived. As of May 2021, San Francisco has rebated more than $6,600,000. 

In Vancouver, comparatively, production companies get a 35% refundable tax credit on certain labor costs, which is limited to 60% of the total production costs. Called the Film Incentive BC Tax Credit, it expanded in 2018 to include scriptwriters. There is also a handful of other tax credits, ranging from film training to digital animation and post-production. Unlike in San Francisco, the credits have no compensation caps. 

Debbie Brubaker, a San Francisco producer, doesn’t think the tax incentives in Vancouver necessarily outweigh the benefits of being able to shoot a production where it’s set. She recently ran the numbers on the difference in tax incentives and found that it is slightly more expensive to shoot in San Francisco, but in her opinion, the benefits in terms of production value outweigh the financial aspect.

Photo of foggy Vancouver, Canada.

Photo of foggy Vancouver, Canada.

Jennifer Schmelzle / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

“I figured out that it’s more expensive to work here, but not enough if you really want production value,” she said. “You don’t have to shoot from the waist up. You can shoot in San Francisco and you don’t have to worry about where you’re aiming your camera. If you’re working in Vancouver you’re limited. And the same places get used over and over again.”

Like Vancouver, the Bay Area, and Northern California as a whole, offers a plethora of diverse settings that can stand in for almost anywhere. Need a token San Francisco shot? Film the Golden Gate Bridge from the Presidio. Production set in New York City? Film downtown. You get the picture. 

“I think the flexibility and the production value versus paying a little more is definitely something the studios need to have a look at,” Brubaker said. “I also believe they have to do it on a case by case basis. I really feel strongly there should be more [filmed] here.” 

While San Francisco lacks the robust stage offerings of Vancouver — many local productions rely on Hangar 1 at Treasure Island — it does have something Vancouver doesn’t: access to the unique realm of Silicon Valley and its workers. 

Brubaker noted that crews in the Bay Area are incredibly tech-savvy and up-to-date on the latest innovations. It’s just one more reason she thinks more productions should be shot here. 

“We have everything here,” she said. “There’s a lot to be said about this area.” 

More movies filmed in San Francisco