Locations & Me: Getting Municipal Permission Cannot Be Ignored

The New York Film Academy is noted for its hands-on philosophy, where students learn by doing. The Film Academy is honored to be the film school of choice of many Hollywood filmmakers, actors, and figures from the entertainment and media world who have sent a son, daughter or family member to study with us.

Locations & Me: Getting Municipal Permission cannot be ignored

Perhaps the documentary that is most widely known for shooting on location in Michigan is the 1980s “Roger & Me,” by producer/director Michael Moore. It’s what put Moore on the map in the documentary world, and what encapsulated a (then) emerging trend of offshoring or displacing union auto manufacturing jobs from the Flint area to overseas or the (non-unionized) American South. It accomplished what documentaries are supposed to do, and that is to bring a story to life from the real location, not a Hollywood movie set.

Ask any student attending an American Film School with a specific interest in film journalism and they will likely cite the work of Moore as an influence ¬– regardless of their politics. Despite the theme and demeanor of Moore himself (see: “Sicko,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”), his films have succeeded at the box office and made him a nice pile of money. That’s not necessarily the goal of the documentary filmmaker, but it sure helps with funding on subsequent projects.

The ideas of the documentary should always drive it, but the matters of access — to information, sources, and location-specific scenes, as much as funding ¬– are what often determine what gets into the production and final cut. Sadly, that often boils down to something so mundane as permitting. The ardent film student and professionals should become familiar with, first, why you would need a permit, second, and how to go about getting one.

You would need a permit to shoot on a location (that you do not own or are renting) if the film is intended to be commercial. That means, are you going to make money with it or is the purpose of the film already connected to commerce, such as in advertising productions intended to promote a product? Other reasons you need permitting: Do you use public space in an unorthodox way (e.g., a production in a park where you use a fountain to film water turning blood red)? If you are simply shooting a video with a handheld camera of your dog catching a Frisbee, that’s a simpler matter (i.e., no permit required). Will your production interrupt the flow of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian? Will the use of filming equipment ¬– wires, generators, tripods, dollies, etc. – be intrusive to the public space? Is there a chance of your shoot will damage property or leave behind an environmental problem, such as confetti on the landscape?

If any of these factors into your production, you likely will need a permit. You might try shooting without one, but you run the risk of being shut down. Can your budget afford to lose the labor and equipment rental costs for that day, much less the scheduling snafu, if that were to happen?

You need not be alone where it comes to getting necessary permits. We recommend three means of doing this:

Work with a location scout. This is the easiest and most expensive option. While this requires paying fees, it might be well worth the cost if you need technical help and lack the time to do it yourself. The scout not only will have good local information on what buildings, parks, streets and landmarks might work well in your shoot, but he or she will understand the problems with these areas as well. Just as important, an experienced location scout will have familiarity with local permitting departments and the process for achieving approvals in a time-sensitive manner.

Remote locations might seem like a safe place to film, but if it’s public property there may be a requirement that you get a permit. The simpler the production ¬– and less intrusive to public traffic and activities – the more likely you will receive that permission

Get to know the state or city film offices (most states have them, but only larger cities do). If instead you go it alone, go about it strategically and diplomatically. Try not to be married to any particular locations, if possible, so that you can adapt to obstacles each permitting agency has. Speak with them to learn of their process before you file an application. Try to find someone who can consider the probability of filming somewhere. For example, don’t expect an easy go of getting permission to film in the city hall lobby during business hours but, perhaps, you are more likely to get permission to shoot the exterior of the building after business hours. Go about it as a give-and-take process ¬– not a battle to be fought or an argument to be won. These bureaus hold ultimate power ¬– so be prepared to sell them on how your film might benefit them.

Simply filming video as might a tourist usually does not require permitting. But if, for example, you wanted to fly a jet fighter through public park airspace, there may be a lot more paperwork involved.

New to a city? Network with the pros there. Try to find colleagues who are familiar with your location and municipality. A good place to start is the local chapter or members of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), where you might get inside tips and perhaps connections to important people.

The time of day you request your shoot might make the permit more likely. Of course, the sun shines differently and casts a different mood from dawn to noon to dusk, so this does affect the cinematography.

At the New York Film Academy, which has 13 campuses in major cities around the globe (including New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, Paris, Florence, Moscow, Abu Dhabi and New Delhi), a Student Production Center provides students with resources that ensure productions meet municipal and industry regulations. The center guides new filmmakers in developing legal location agreements, as well as securing location insurance certificates, location filming permits and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) signatory paperwork (where actors are required, which is less often a requirement in documentaries).

If you are an early-career documentary or short-theme filmmaker ¬– perhaps at the same stage where Michael Moore was in the mid-1980s, before he had his first big hit – you would be smart to master this part of film producing. It can make or break a project.


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