Filming San Diego: Hollywood’s Backlot

June 21, 2002 – December 09, 2004

Complete Special Issue “Filming San Diego” Now On-line

The history of motion pictures in San Diego began in 1898 with a short street scene of downtown and a double-decker trolley. This Edison Company production marked the birth of the motion picture business on the West Coast. Since then over 500 movies and television programs have been filmed in San Diego.

In an attempt to avoid Edison Company patent enforcers, Allan Dwan’s Flying ‘A’ Studios set up shop in La Mesa in 1910 and promptly created over 100 short westerns and documentaries. During this time many short-lived studios popped up in San Diego prior to studio consolidation in Hollywood in the 1920s.

In the mid 1920s Mary Pickford depicted Balboa Park as a Spanish Castle in Rosita. The motion picture industry’s interest in casting Balboa Park as a castle or South American republic amidst revolution was often repeated between 1915 and 1941 in films such as The Americano with Douglas Fairbanks (1916), Soldiers of Fortune (1919), The Dictator (1922), The Magnificent Fraud (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941). Hotel del Coronado was another landmark often focused on in the camera lens of early movie moguls with films starring Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Ramon Navarro.

During the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood came to San Diego with the help of the U. S. Navy and Marines to film several war dramas such as Devil Dogs of the Air (MCRD), Dive Bomber (North Island) Guadalcanal Diary, The Sands of Iwo Jima and Gung Ho! This association between the military and film industry was a long and sometimes controversial one. While the 1950s brought more military films a growing variety of films such as the comedy Some Like It Hot were also made here.

The 1960s produced a range of comedies, dramas, military and counterculture or youth-oriented films. The 1970s featured a mixture of social dramas and the first of the locally produced Killer Tomato movies. The advent of the San Diego Film Commission and Hollywood’s growing desire go out on location, greatly expanded the number of films made in San Diego in the 1980s-1990s.

Top Gun and The Stunt Man illustrate the variety of movies made in San Diego at the end of the 20th century, which culminated with the release of two blockbuster films, Almost Famous and Traffic, showing the diversity and increasing drawing power of San Diego as a major film location.