It’s fair to say that by the start of the 1920s the role that Fort Lee, New Jersey enjoyed as U.S. film capital had been severely compromised when its major studios packed up and left for the more advantageous economics and climate of Hollywood.
“More than three decades passed before the next real attempt at New Jersey filmmaking,” the New York Times proclaimed in 1998, a concept other print and online sources echo. During the extensive drought of big studio productions shot in New Jersey, they say, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) is the sole exception until the late 1970s, when directors like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese helped trigger a resurgence of interest in the Garden State. This scenario offers a great narrative worthy of cinematic epics, but it simply isn’t true.
In 1947, 20th Century Fox returned to Fort Lee to film interiors for its film noir offering Kiss of Death. And, yes, it took another seven years for Kazan to transport a film crew to Hoboken for a 36-day shoot of On the Waterfront, but only three years after that The Burglar, a film noir starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield, was shot in Atlantic City and features such sights as the Steel Pier and Mansfield riding a boardwalk tram.
In 1964, the Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing made a cameo appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Marnie, starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren. And, in 1972, Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, starring Jack Nicholson, was shot in and around Atlantic City.
In 1978, the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission was created by then- Governor Brendan Byrne, who was looking for a way to bolster the state’s economy. “‘We were discussing the potential of New Jersey, the fact that the industry really started here, that it was a natural,” Byrne told the New York Times in 1998.
The advent of the film commission not only lured filmmakers to the state but restored the mix of genres that had helped define New Jersey filmmaking in the Fort Lee days. “Filming started to return to the state,” Carmen Juri reported last year on Jersey’s Best website, “with such notable films as the 1979 The Amityville Horror (Toms River) and Voices (Hoboken) as well as the 1982 musical comedy-drama Annie (Wilson Hall at Monmouth University was used as the exteriors of Oliver Warbucks’ mansion).”
By 1983, Vineland was one of the New Jersey towns, along with Ocean City, Somers Point, Mt. Holly and Atco, used as a location site for Eddie and the Cruisers, adapted from P.F. Kluge’s novel of the same name. In 2008, Kluge, who had once worked in Vineland as a journalist, discussed his protagonist Eddie Wilson, telling The Grapevine, “I wanted him to be deeply New Jersey, so I thought of Vineland. No way could Eddie be from the New York City suburbs. Vineland suited him fine.”
In 1998, the New York Times reported that the state’s film commission, which “helps filmmakers with everything from location scouting to negotiating with neighborhood groups,” estimated “film-related spending in the state has totaled about $500 million” since 1978.
Unfortunately, just as Hollywood drew New Jersey studios to the West Coast in the early 20th century, Canada “began offering lucrative incentives to filmmakers” at the start of the 2000s, according to Juri. To ensure continued incentives for filmmakers, Jersey’s Best reports, “in 2018, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority approved a program that provides credits up to $75 million per fiscal year to film and television projects. …On Jan. 21, 2020, the incentive was extended until 2028.”
Those credits might explain why North Jersey substituted for the Chicago setting of the Oscar-nominated Trial of the Chicago 7, an act of cinematic prestidigitation Fort Lee once knew only too well.