In the early years of the 20th century, New York City film producers set out in search of a winter headquarters. The warm climate, striking natural surroundings, inexpensive labor and easy rail access attracted the movie industry to Jacksonville, earning the city the title of "Winter Film Capital of the World."
Jacksonville's first silent film studio opened in 1908, followed by more than 30 others over the course of the next decade, including Metro Pictures - later to become known as Hollywood giant MGM. During the heyday of the silent film era, Jacksonville played a starring role in many notable movie moments, including the career beginnings of comedic legend Oliver Hardy and the site of the United States' first full-length feature film in Technicolor, The Gulf Between.
One noteworthy silent film studio was operated by producer Richard Norman, whose visionary pictures created positive, lead roles for African-American actors, a stark contrast to the standards of the time. Today, in historic Old Arlington, you can find the home of Norman Studios, the only known remaining silent film studio complex in Jacksonville. Though many of the surrounding structures have since seen other functions, the old production building is under renovation, and will serve as the Jacksonville Silent Film Museum, housing the studio's original darkroom, screening and projection rooms. Historic photographs and original equipment from the studio are on display at the Museum of Science & History.
In 2003, The Flying Ace, Norman's signature film achievement, made its debut at the inaugural Jacksonville Film Festival after 75 years out of public sight. Recently restored by the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center, the movie received a fitting tribute before a packed house at Jacksonville's historic Ritz Theatre and Museum. The Film Festival, held annually in October revives Jacksonville's glorious moviemaking past by serving as a destination for the independent film community and paving the way for a new generation of talent. The film festival takes place throughout Jacksonville in venues including the Moorish-styled Florida Theatre, built in 1927 as the largest movie palace in Jacksonville and one of only four remaining grand movie palaces of the era in the state, and the San Marco Theater, built in 1938 as an Art Deco masterpiece and currently shows first-run blockbusters and cult classics. Both classic theaters were designed by local architect Roy Benjamin.
Though the 1920s led to a steady disappearance of the films and filmmakers, in recent years Jacksonville has made a triumphant return to the silver screen, with historic neighborhoods and exotic vistas doubling for the jungles of Central and South America, Chicago, New York, South Carolina, New England, small-town USA and military facilities that span the globe. Well-known movies such as G.I. Jane, The Manchurian Candidate, Basic and award-winning HBO film Recount all have been filmed in this area. For other Jacksonville movie credits, visit the Jacksonville Economic Development Council's Office of Film & Television.