In the 1977 Steven Spielberg film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the aliens came to town.
My town, actually: Muncie, Indiana.
Much of the first half of the movie – the initial UFO sightings, the disappearance of the little boy, the growing obsession of the Richard Dreyfuss character, and said character’s efforts to find the quaintly-named Cornbread Road – takes place in the town where I was born.
But the movie wasn’t filmed in Muncie. Some people today still seem to think – and they post accordingly on Facebook group pages – that director Steven Spielberg shot virtually everything that comes before the trip to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, in my Indiana city of about 68,000 people.
But although Muncie is a strange pop culture fixation in many works of fiction, from Stephen King and Peter Straub’s novel “The Talisman” to “Tom Slick” cartoons to “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Agents of SHIELD,” actual on-location filming has eluded the city that lies about 45 minutes northeast of Indianapolis.
It sometimes seems like most movies and TV shows are set and filmed in New York City and Los Angeles – occasionally with Atlanta or Vancouver substituting for those big cities.
Hollywood does come to small cities and towns. Just not my hometown. (But I’m not bitter.)
Film production means a lot to big cities and can mean even more to small communities: Money. Prestige. Bragging rights. Did I mention money?
Indiana – Sports Movie Capital of the World?
“Hoosiers,” released in 1986, was perhaps the most effective marriage of story and location in Indiana’s film production history. “Breaking Away,” released in 1979 and also set and filmed in Indiana, was likewise perfectly matched. Yes, scenes of a lonely basketball goal in front of an isolated barn or a bike race with hundreds of spectators could have been filmed anywhere, but they were not.
When the Indiana Film Commission, which has the responsibility of bringing TV and movie production to the state, was created in 1982, the goal was to spark economic development. A governor’s office spokesperson told me for a March 1982 article in The Muncie Evening Press that Hollywood would find it less expensive to film here. As a bonus, Joy Rothrock said, “Motels, grocery stores, you name it, all get extra business from a movie production. There’s money to be made here.”
An Illinois Film Office representative told me for that 1982 article that for every dollar of that state’s budget spent on attracting film production, the state brought in $50.
Illinois, boasting world-class Chicago for filming, was back then years ahead of Indiana in attracting film production, although 1979 coming-of-age movie “Breaking Away,” about Bloomington townies versus Indiana University cyclists in the Little 500 bike race, predated the film commission.
“Hoosiers,” released in 1986, was among the early, important films shot in Indiana after the creation of the film commission. Gene Hackman led an underdog, small-town high school basketball team against a big-city team. The story was a fictionalized version of a real-life championship season that pitted the team from tiny Milan, Indiana, against the basketball powerhouse from Muncie (fictionalized as Hickory and South Bend, respectively).
“Hoosiers” continues to be a touchstone of film production in Indiana. The movie is considered a classic and the state still capitalizes on the production. The town of Knightstown’s star tourist attraction is the Hoosier Gym, one of the shooting locations for “Hoosiers.” The gym and museum attraction draws 80,000 visitors each year.
My hometown of Muncie was not so lucky.
Close Encounters of the Location Filming Kind
It’s possible that some people in my hometown did not want “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” filmed there, but it’s safe to say that most people in Muncie were at least intrigued by the idea of Steven Spielberg filming his first movie after “Jaws” there.
In a 2017 interview with me, Richard Heath, who was Muncie’s police chief in 1976, recalled how the secretary in his city hall office called out to him, “Chief, Hollywood is on the phone.” Heath said his response was “Sure,” thinking she was making an odd joke. Heath picked up the phone and spoke with a woman from the office of the film’s producers who asked about the possibility of filming some scenes in Muncie, at Prairie Creek Reservoir, and the police dispatch center. Oh, and the production might shoot some police cars.
The newspaper reception was low-key: “Science fiction movie might be filmed here,” was The Muncie Evening Press headline on March 26, 1976.
Heath recalled in 2017 that his department furnished the film production with police badges and uniforms to replicate for use in the movie and an employee of the production listened to police dispatch recordings to get a feel for what they were like.
Heath believes the production might have taken a few reference photos at the reservoir, and all this preparation might have been for scenes when very rustic local residents – led by veteran character actor and poet Roberts Blossom – encourage UFOs to “stop and be friendly.” Instead of stopping and being friendly, the UFOs are chased by black-and-white police cars to the Ohio state line – a border that is a county away from Muncie – and through a highway toll booth that doesn’t exist.
But the strategic placement of some local memorabilia, including a “Ball U” T-shirt from Muncie’s Ball State University, and very familiar-appearing suburban housing and a McDonalds that people still swear is one in particular in Muncie – convinced local residents that scenes from the movie were filmed locally.
Forty years later, the former police chief still hoped to clear up the urban legend that his department bought new black-and-white patrol cars to encourage on-location filming.
“That was already in the works,” Heath told me in 2017.
Marvel Movies Hailing from the South
In many cases over the decades, Hollywood did come to town. And it continues to do so. But as in the case with “Close Encounters,” sometimes it’s another town.
“Fire in the Sky,” the 1993 film that in some ways echoed and in other ways did not echo “Close Encounters,” saw its story of a man’s abduction by aliens played out against the backdrop of small-town Arizona but was actually filmed in four towns in Oregon, including Oakland and Sutherlin. If any towns in Arizona were disappointed that the movie was not shot there, the towns in Oregon where the movie did go on location were no doubt pleased.
While it might seem every state and every town would like to see films produced there, not every state and locality jumps on the film production bandwagon. Wisconsin, for example, has no state film office, according to SagIndie, which promotes the relationship between actors and productions and maintains a list of state film production offices. Likewise, Delaware has no film office. Both states land film and TV productions, though.
Remember the mention of money earlier? There’s a lot of money spent on movie and TV production in the United States. In 2016, The Wrap reported that film production spending in the previous year topped $7 billion. That year, 109 films were shot in the U.S. Of those films, 19 were made in California, probably not a surprising number considering the state was the cradle of film production and offers locations more varied than many states.
The Wrap article credited the impact of the California Film and Television Tax Credit Program, which incentivized seven of the productions.
Incentives are certainly a factor in productions landing in locations other than Los Angeles, New York, and California. The most common incentives, according to Wrapbook, are refundable and transferable tax credits, grants, film tax rebates, and bonuses (the latter defined as free-of-cost shooting locations, ease of permissions for filming in public places, and discounts while buying from local businesses.)
While Arkansas has a film incentive program, the Netflix series “Ozark,” one of the best-known recent productions set in Arkansas, is filmed in rural areas around Atlanta. (Richard Oswald wrote about this for the Daily Yonder in 2017.)
The 1990 monster movie “Tremors” was set in the fictional town of Perfection, Nevada, but it was filmed in Lone Pine, California, a town of about 2,000 people. Lone Pine was hardly new to film productions: Films dating back to the 1930s were filmed in the desert town.
The Wrap article noted that big-budget productions like “Captain America: Civil War” were not made in California.
Many Marvel Studios productions are filmed in Georgia, at studios at Trilith, a planned and designed town of about 5,000 where the former Pinewood Studios Atlanta are located. Thirteen miles from the Atlanta airport, Trilith has been a residential community for only four years, Variety reported at the time of its article.
Variety, the show business newspaper, published an article asking if Trilith was the new “company town” or “the template for future cities.”
Back in Muncie, Cornbread Road is a real road. I grew up not far from it. Evocative as it might be of the “small town” aura that Spielberg wanted to create with “Close Encounters,” it wasn’t a screenwriter’s invention. Just a lucky opportunity for the filmmakers, probably like a lot of rural and small-town film production.
Keith Roysdon is a lifelong writer and reporter who writes for several news and pop culture sites. His third co-authored true crime book, “The Westside Park Murders,” was named Best Non-Fiction Book of 2021 by Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. He also writes fiction and his crime novel “Seven Angels” won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel by Mystery Writers of American Midwest Chapter.