New York City is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States with world-class art, entertainment, and dining. Throughout history, the city has experienced major artistic and cultural movements in filmmaking, television, theatre, photography, and the visual arts, helping to shape the city into the artistic hub it is today.
The history of filmmaking and visual arts in New York dates back to 1750. The first Broadway theater, Theatre on Nassau Street, opened in downtown Manhattan, followed by the launch of historic venues such as Bowery Theater, Niblo’s Garden, Palmo’s Opera House, and Astor’s Opera House throughout the 1800s.
In 1894, the first film production studio in the United States, Edison Studios, opened in West Orange, NY. Founded by Thomas Edison, the company would go on to release the first commercially exhibited motion pictures in the country. The films, shown at New York’s kinetoscope parlors, gave many the opportunity to see short films for the first time. The studio eventually expanded to additional facilities in Manhattan and the Bronx in 1901, producing culturally significant films including The Great Train Robbery (1903), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910), and Frankenstein (1910).
Throughout the 1910s, the filmmaking industry continued to expand in NYC and the greater area. Many aspiring filmmakers, producers, actors, as well as established production houses opened their own studios, seizing creative opportunities to compete with Edison. In 1909, Universal Studios, originally called the Yankee Film Company, opened. The Goldwyn Pictures Corporation opened in 1916, eventually becoming the major studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1920, Kaufman Astoria Studios, now home to the city’s one and only backlot, opened in Queens. Many historical films were also produced in the 1910s, launching the careers of industry legends such as Buster Keaton.
In the 1920s, Langston Hughes and other influential black writers and artists ushered in The Harlem Renaissance, expanding the diversity of the writing and arts community in New York. The Harlem Renaissance had a lasting impact on New York, bringing in a new era and deep appreciation for Black art, dance, literature, politics, theater, and music. Zora Neale Hurston, author and filmmaker, and Duke Ellington, musician and composer, two extremely significant voices in the black arts community, gained a lot of notoriety during this time.
The 1920s continued to bring a plethora of film, photography, and visual art into the city. The Cameraman, one of Buster Keaton’s best known pieces, was released in 1928. Berenice Abbott, one of the best known female photographers, captured the evolving city streets in a collection that would eventually become her series Changing New York.
By the 1930s, New York had more than ten million residents, establishing itself as a major metropolitan city. The city acted as a backdrop for films, including King Kong (1933), starring Fay Wray, A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers, and Kitty Carlisle, Mannequin (1937) with Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy, and Bringing Up Baby (1938) starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. New York also a destination for studios to open their films, such as Little Women at Radio City Music Hall in 1933. The 1930s was also the start to New York’s relationship with television, with CBS, Columbia Broadcasting System, launching their television programming. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) followed with their own entertainment arm, The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1939.
The 1940s continued to expand the arts scene in New York with Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko. Pollock, who pioneered the all-over painting style, used his body to paint large, dynamic pieces that went on to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Theater also became more versatile in the 1940s, with the opening of spaces such as “”The Living Theater””, which is now the oldest experimental theatre group in the United States. The first of many hit Tennessee Williams plays, The Glass Menagerie, went up on Broadway, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1945.
The 1940s and 1950s were important decades for filmmaking in NYC. Many influential and beloved films were shot in the city, such as Million Dollar Baby (1941), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Copacabana (1947), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) and A King in New York (1957) with Charlie Chaplin. Audiences were becoming increasingly familiar with the streets of NYC, due to not only the city’s filmography, but for the depiction of New York in books, paintings, and photographs. In 1945, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the now-famous V-J Day in Times Square image of a Navy sailor embracing a dental assistant.
It was also a significant era for television, as CBS launched successful variety television shows based in NYC such as The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-1970) and The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), as well as long-running game shows such as What’s My Line? (1950-1967). The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) created and aired the first nationally televised children’s show from New York, The Howdy Doody Show (1947).
In the 1950s, many “Off-Broadway” theaters, or theaters with a capacity between 100 and 499, were created as an alternative to Broadway shows, providing more affordable entertainment. One of the first off-broadway productions, Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams, went up at Circle in the Square Theatre in 1952. In addition to the legendary Williams, artist Andy Warhol made NYC the center for the avant-garde in the ’50s-’80s. In 1952, Warhol had his first solo exhibit, “”Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote”” at the Hugo Gallery. Warhol was a well-known New York resident and artist, creating iconic pop art pieces including the silkscreen paintings Marilyn Diptych (1962) and Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) from his famous studio, nicknamed The Factory. The 50s and 60s were also a great era for photography, with influential photographers such as Diane Arbus, William Klein, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill Cunningham making their mark in the city.
New York also had several avant-garde jazz clubs in the ’50s and ’60s, such as The Five Spot Café, where Blossom Dearie and Elvin Jones performed, and many writers of the time, such as Jack Kerouac spent time. The city also continued to be a prime shooting location for independent filmmakers. In 1953, Little Fugitive, filmed in Coney Island, became the first independent film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. John Cassavetes, an American film actor who lived in the city, filmed and produced one of his first independent pictures, Shadows, in New York in 1959. Cassavetes went on to win the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. Warhol also experimented with film, releasing pieces such as Empire (1964) and Chelsea Girls (1966). Martin Scorsese, who studied and went to college in New York City in 1964, shot his first independent film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, in New York in 1967.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, NYC secured its spot as a top filmmaking city, playing a role in iconic films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), West Side Story (1961), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather (1972), Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Saturday Night Fever (1977). NBC also began broadcasting Saturday Night Live, a late-night variety and sketch character show, originally called NBC’s Saturday Night, in 1975.
Film continued to thrive in the 80s and 90s, with New York as the background in many hit films. Sony Pictures filmed Ghostbusters (1984) in the city, as well as Paramount Pictures’ Coming to America (1988), Penny Marshall’s Big (1988) and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989). In 1983, Broadway Stages and Silvercup Studios opened. Scorsese, now a famous director and filmmaker, went on to film Goodfellas (1990) in the city.
In 1992, Jerry Sherlock, the executive producer of The Hunt for Red October (1990), added to the rich fabric of New York’s arts and culture community with our total immersion filmmaking school, The New York Film Academy. With a team of filmmakers and educators including Michael Young now NYFA President, Sherlock envisioned a school that would enable students to write, shoot, direct, and edits their own short films. NYFA was based in the historic Tribeca Film Center until 1994, then moved to the Tammany Hall Building in Union Square until 2014. Now, NYFA is based in Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan, overlooking Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. NYFA’s hands-on approach has continued to set it apart from other film and art schools, helping students find confidence as visual artists while preparing them for the real-world challenges in film, television, media, and entertainment.
Throughout the 1990s, New York continued to be a haven for aspiring filmmakers, actors, and up and coming artists and writers. Good Machine, an independent film company based in the city, produced iconic movies including Flirt (1995), Safe (1995), Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), and The Laramie Project (2000) before it was acquired by Universal Pictures. The Shooting Gallery was also based in NYC, producing significant films including Laws of Gravity (1992), Cafe Society (1995), Sling Blade (1996), and Chinese Coffee (2000).
Directors such as Jennie Livingston and Todd Haynes also brought in a new era of independent film in the ‘90s, bringing audiences into New York’s LGBTQ community. Haynes would help pioneer the New Queer Cinema movement in the 90s, with films such as Poison (1991), his directorial debut. Christine Vachon, his film producer for Poison, went on to produce New York based films such as I Shot Andy Warhol (1996).
In the 2000s, the opportunities for film expanded for larger productions with the opening of expansive spaces such as Steiner Studios. Steiner, launched in 2004, is a 200,000 square foot space with ample support space and seventeen soundstages. Many blockbuster films were shot and produced at Steiner, including The Producers (2005), Inside Man (2006), Across the Universe (2007), Enchanted (2007), The Nanny Diaries (2007), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Baby Mama (2008), Burn After Reading (2008), and Men in Black 3 (2012). Hit television shows such as Damages (2007), Flight of the Conchords (2007), Boardwalk Empire (2010), Girls (2012), and Gotham (2014), In The Heights (2021), and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).
Today, New York is still a creative hub for filmmakers, photographers, actors, directors, producers, and content creators alike.