Reel Philadelphia

Landmark local film-making, past and present

Move over Hollywood! With Oscar season underway (and the Academy Awards coming up March 10th), Philadelphia deserves some time in the cinematic spotlight. Here’s five ways we shine in the film industry.

We’re OG. At the beginning of America’s obsession with the motion picture industry, Lubin Manufacturing Company on S. 8th street produced the first commercial movie camera/projector, and also made more than 3,000 silent films from 1896–1916, including The Sheriff’s Mistake and The Bank Cashier (two popular tickets in 1912).

We’re full of iconic scenery. It’s been forty-five years since Rocky’s iconic run through the Philly streets in Rocky II, twenty-five years since St. Augustine’s Church provided sanctuary in The Sixth Sense, and I don’t want to think about how long it’s been since Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall danced at Wanamaker’s in Mannequin.

We’ve got range. A wide variety of movies have been filmed here, including: Invincible (2006), Philadelphia (1993), National Treasure (2004), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Trading Places (1983), Twelve Monkeys (1995), World War Z (2013), Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Hustle (2022), Witness (1985) The Irishman (2019), and of course the Rocky/Creed franchises.

Budget-friendly beauty. Philadelphia is a top city for filmmaking around the world, rated 9th in a current list behind (in order) Los Angeles, London, NYC, Paris, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, and Boston. Pennsylvania’s Tax Credit is a big reason why – film productions that spend 60% or more of their total budget in-state are eligible for 25–30% off their taxes. PA also offers other incentives like free security and police assistance, plus deeply discounted (or even free) location rentals.

Oscar winners out the wazoo. Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, F. Murray Abraham, Ethyl, and Lionel Barrymore, Will Smith, M. Night Shyamalan (just to name a few). Philadelphia is representing at this year’s Oscar’s too:  Jenkintown’s Bradley Cooper is nominated for Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay for Maestro. Coleman Domingo has a Best Actor nomination for Rustin, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph for Best Actress in The Holdovers —  both of these talents are graduates of Temple University.

You might say movie history runs in my blood….

Nearly one hundred and twenty years ago, my great grandfather — a true Philadelphian, born and raised — was an extra on the set of The Great Train Robbery, the world’s first blockbuster. Edwin S. Porter’s groundbreaking film was shooting near Newark, along the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western lines. My great grandfather, a railroad engineer, happened to be in New Jersey that day, and he was pulled into the production.

Barely 11 minutes long, the film tells the story of murderous bandits who meet their end by one heroic town’s brave, handsome posse. Crowds loved it! They came out in droves for the movie’s tour on the vaudeville and nickelodeon circuits.

In addition to being a major commercial success, The Great Train Robbery was also America’s first dramatic film, often credited with setting the standard for plot-based storytelling in cinema and inspiring countless sequels, spinoffs, and remakes. Although it wasn’t technically the first Western film, it started the trend, and came to define its own special “train heist” subgenre, still popular today (Butch Cassidy, anyone?).

When I studied film in college, my Dad recalled how proud his grandfather had been of his brief contribution to motion picture history. As I am, today! Here’s to silver screen dreams passed down through our genes, and to all the city’s celluloid heroes, then and now.

🚂🎬 GTR: Behind the Scenes 👀👀

  • The film is on the National Film Registry, and its original camera negative has been preserved with The Library of Congress, where it’s still good enough to make new prints (it’s also on youtube).
  • Audiences were profoundly affected by the iconic scene of a man firing his pistol directly into the camera – many truly thought they were being shot at!
  • The final scene of Goodfellas (1990) is an homage to GTR, where Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy, fires his revolver into the camera.
  • Although set in the American West, the film was actually shot in northwest New Jersey, near Dover, on a budget of only $150 (about $5300 today).
  • GTR was one of about 1200 films made by Edison Studios – as in Thomas Edison, the famous inventor – which produced the country’s first commercial motion pictures.
  • While the film’s editing is simple and linear, it was one of the first “narrative” movies portraying realistic events, a significant step in cinema.
  • Frank Hanaway, who played one of the bandits in the film, was the first stuntman in movie history.
  • GTR was the film debut of Tom London, an early B-Western actor who holds the Guinness Book record for appearing in the most films in history – over 2000 appearances! He was just 14 when he played his first role, a locomotive engineer.


⭐🎥 Carl Weathers (1948 – 2024) 📺⭐

On Thursday, February 1st, Carl Weathers, the actor who played Apollo Creed, passed away peacefully at home from heart disease, at age 76. Although Weathers grew up in New Orleans, his monumental role in the first four Rocky movies links him forever with the City of Brotherly Love. Weathers was also in Predator, Happy Gilmore, Action Jackson, plus a ton of TV. 

Longtime friend Sylvester Stallone posted a touching tribute to Instagram:

Today is an incredibly sad day for me. I’m so torn up, I can’t even tell you. I’m just trying to hold it in because Carl Weathers was such an integral part of my life, my success — everything about it, I give him incredible credit and kudos. Because when he walked into that room and I saw him for the first time, I saw greatness. But I didn’t realize how great. I never could’ve accomplished what we did with “Rocky” without him. He was absolutely brilliant — his voice, his size, his presence, his athletic ability, but, most importantly, his heart, his soul. It’s a horrible loss. He was magic. I was so fortunate to be part of his life. Apollo, keep punching.

More than just a beloved icon and action hero, Weathers had comedy chops too!

Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, has the story behind the development of Weathers’ unforgettable character on the show:

So I called Carl, and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’ve seen the show but we wanna use you for it’ And he goes, ‘Great, but let me ask you something. It’s not going to be just a bunch of Rocky jokes is it?’ I laughed, ‘No! No! Give me a little credit, Carl. Of course not! It’s a multidimensional character.’ And he was like, ‘Because I direct and I’m a funny guy and I don’t wanna just do a bunch of Rocky jokes. Nobody wants that. Maybe I could be really cheap or something?’

And I said, ‘Whaaaat?’ ‘Maybe I could be really cheap?’ ‘Really? You’d like to do that?’ ‘Oh, absolutely, that’s what I’m saying. I want to play someone funny, not just be a sight gag.’ It was so much better. I went back to the writers room and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. Carl Weathers wants to be incredibly cheap.’ All credit to Carl on that.

Hope you have enjoyed this look back at Philly’s “Hollywood” roots and influence. Thoughts? Questions? My friends, I love your feedback! Please reach out in the comments below.

About Michael Thomas Leibrandt 11 Articles
Michael Thomas Leibrandt is an Engineer/Consultant/Author/Creator. He lives and works with celiac in Abington, PA

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