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What Do You Think Of When You See Las Vegas On Film?: A Guide to the Sin City in Cinema

Once upon a time, if you watched a movie or TV show and thought “That was probably filmed in California or New York” you usually would have been right. Then Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto passed remarkably friendly tax incentive programs, and suddenly it seemed like every other show on TV filmed above the border. As California’s economy gradually fell apart for a wide variety of reasons, various other states smelled blood in the water and passed their own tax incentive programs. According to Film Production Capital, Georgia and Louisiana are now the two best states to film in. So, if you watch something now and guess that it was probably filmed in Canada or Georgia you’re probably going to be right, although California is now trying very, very hard to entice productions to stay in-state.

There are some locations, though, Canada and Georgia can’t replicate. Some places have a character so distinctively specific that you can’t fake it. For example, if you have a character driving down the Las Vegas strip there’s kind of no way to do that other than to actually drive down the Vegas strip and film it. Because of that, we can often chart the evolution of certain iconic locations by simply looking at their depictions in film over the years. For example, if you want to know what Las Vegas looked like in the ‘80s check out Rain Man, and you’ll see the Algiers Hotel prominently featured, a lasting legacy since that Hotel was closed and demolished in 2004.

rainman17BThe one thing about filming in Vegas I’ve never been sure about, though, is how often people actually film inside of famous Vegas hotels. Couldn’t they have simply built the interior sets on a soundstage somewhere?

I say that as someone who’s never actually been to Las Vegas. I’m told by friends who’ve been there, though, that if a movie tried to fake it they would be able to tell and it would pull them out of the story. It would just be such a bummer to see Bradley Cooper and the guys standing in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace in The Hangover and instantly think, “I’ve been to the actual lobby of that hotel, and wherever they’re standing right now sure as hell isn’t it.”

Well, I recently came across this infographic created called “Sin City Cinema:” “Sin City Cinema: A Guide to Popular Las Vegas Hotels through the Silver Screen.”  It’s a cool confirmation that more films than I realized actually did film scenes in some iconic Vegas hotels. Plus, like Rain Man and the Algiers Hotel some of these hotels have since closed down, like the Riviera (home to Oceans 11 and Casino) and the Stardust (home to Swingers and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

Sin City InfographTo be honest, since I’ve never been to Vegas I don’t have much of an association with the iconography of the hotels. I know that the city is diverse enough that some movies focus on the absolute glitz of Caeasar’s Palace whereas others depict the more meager haunts of the less well-off and something like the recent Fright Night (2011) remake tried to remind us that Vegas has relatively normal suburbs – well, normal until a vampire moves in next door. My association with the city comes from what I’ve seen in the movies and shows, even music videos. For example, in the 80s I might have wanted to drive by Fremont Street in Vegas just because that’s where U2 filmed its famous music video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”:

Sidenote: If Bono jumps on the hood of your car in 1987 in Vegas and starts singing a U2 song do you have permission to run him over? It’s Vegas, baby. Places to go, people to see, no time for Irish rock stars wandering about.

Here’s what I am a sucker for: The panoramic view of Vegas from a high-level floor in a Vegas hotel. The iconography of the town can carry us into the exploits of conmen (Oceans 11), the strong arms of the bosses (Casino) or the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” hijinks of vacationing adults (Hangover). But the image which usually sticks with me is of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in their hotel room with a spectacular view overlooking the entire city, a potent visualization of the idea that two nobodies, two relative strangers, had united to become brothers (or at least Cruise’s characters thinks so in that moment) and all-too-brief kings of the world. I also think of Matthew Perry looking up gobsmacked at the sultry Selma Hayek on their wedding night in a Vegas hotel in Fools Rush In, the entire city viewed through the window in the background as the two prepare to consummate their quickie marriage. I think of adults having the type of fun you can’t have anywhere else, and stories which might otherwise seem unremarkable in fact come off as feasible only due to their Vegas setting. And because that is a setting which can’t easily be faked I’m never pulled out of the story, wondering whether or not they’re actually in Canada or Georgia or California.

What do you think of when you see a Vegas movie? And have you actually ever been to any of the locations highlighted in the infographic? Let me know in the comments.



    1. I’m the same – well, not the part about having ever stayed at the Riviera, but that is a hotel which is famous enough that I’ve heard of it before. I had no idea it had closed until seeing this infographic.

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