Surely you’ve heard some variation of the phrase “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.” However, professional (and hopefully personal) ethics dictate the opposite when it comes to filming on property that doesn’t belong to you. Since it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to navigating red tape and paperwork, we decided to break down the nuts and bolts of location permitting to help you prepare for asking permission – and increase your odds of receiving it.
WHAT IS A LOCATION PERMIT?
A location, filming, or photography permit is simply permission from a landowner, be it an individual, organization, business, or government agency, to shoot a specific project in a specific place on their property during a specific timeframe. A less formal version might be a written release from a private landowner – say, a cabin owner whose property you’d like to film. Not every property will require one, and it’s not always necessary for those shooting still photography instead of film, but it’s always important to research requirements before you head out with camera in hand.
WHEN DO I NEED TO GET A PERMIT?
There is no perfect answer to this question, although as we just mentioned, it’s best to find out before you end up begging forgiveness – or staring down a hefty fine. It’s safe to say that most locations, from city sidewalks to national parks, will require some form of permitting for certain projects. Here are a few quick and fast tips to knowing when a permit will likely be required:
- Your Property vs. Other People’s Property: If you’re shooting in your own backyard or on a friend or family member’s property, you’re all in the clear (as long as you ask permission, of course!). Everything else? Fair game for a potential permit.
- Personal vs. Commercial: What is the intent for your shoot? If you’re simply shooting for personal enjoyment, then it’s typically the case that no permit is needed. However, once you move into the commercial (or potentially commercial) sphere (i.e. hoping to make money from your work), the likelihood of needing a permit increases, especially if you’re shooting a moving picture versus a still photograph.
- Equipment and Props: This goes along with intent. Bringing a tripod for personal use? That’s fine. Lugging along props, pyrotechnics, or intrusive camera equipment? It’s time to break out the paperwork.
- Models and Animals: Are you simply capturing people or animals in your surroundings, or are you importing them to the location for the specific purpose of a commercial project? The latter is a one-way ticket to permit land.
- Impact on Others: Finally, will you request special access to a non-public area on the property? Will you need to shut down a city street or county road for filming? Will you block pedestrian flow in a park? These are all situations that impact public use and will likely meet strict scrutiny before a permit is issued.
HOW DO I GET A PERMIT?
Before you begin the permitting process, you have to first figure out who to contact about the property you’d like to film. Sometimes it’s obvious – you’re standing in the middle of Saguaro National Park, say, or want to shoot inside your favorite neighborhood bar – and sometimes it’s a bit more nebulous. If you’re contemplating private property, whether that’s a business or home, try searching for the name or address online to look for contact information. You might also be able to search public records at the local County Clerk’s office.
If shooting in public – say, a city street or public beach – you’ll want to contact the city’s film or special events office, or the state film commission. Some, like the California Film Commission and Film New Orelans websites, offer a wealth of knowledge on everything from filming locations to tax credits; others are much more bare bones depending on the frequency of filming activity in that area.
If you’re considering public land, you need to contact the land manager:
- City, County, and State Parks: While you might find information on the specific park system’s website, this is where those local and regional film offices come in – when in doubt, they’ll steer you in the right direction.
- National Parks and National Monuments: The National Park Service website features a page dedicated to filming and photography. This is a place for general information about the filming policy (generally, commercial shoots require a permit; still photography and personal filming don’t, unless they involve props, models, or animals, would impact user experience, or would require park administrative costs. To actually obtain a permit, however, you’ll need to contac the specific park unit where you plan to shoot.
- National Forests: Similar to the national parks, the United States Forest Service maintains a page devoted to filming, which offers links to legislation and contact info for different regions. Commercial shooting of any kind requires a permit.
- Bureau of Land Management: The BLM rules are very similar to the Park Service’s, and they’re outlined on a dedicated page that also offers information on filming locations and various state film commissions. As with the USFS and NPS, you’ll need to contact regional offices to arrange your actual permit, and permit parameters may vary between regional BLM entities.
- Wilderness Areas: Wilderness areas are maintained by an array of agencies – the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, even state park systems. Each agency may have different rulings on what is allowed in their wilderness areas, but all will be governed by the rules set forth in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Commercial activity is severely restricted in order to maintain the nature of wilderness, and often the only kind of filming allowed is of an educational or promotional purpose that disseminates information about those specific lands. Your best bet is to contact the land manager that administers the specific wilderness area you hope to film inside; Wilderness.net is a fantastic resource to locate contact information and links to legislation about each wilderness area.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS?
Once you’ve determined that a permit is required and have reached out to the appropriate entity, you’ll need to provide them with an array of information:
You’ll need to provide an array of info, typically:
- Nature of the production – still photography or film/video, along with a detailed description of what you’re planning to shoot
- Exact location – they may even request a map of the area
- Specific dates
- Contact info for someone who will be on location (yes, even if you’re in the woods!)
- Whether you’re using any props, animals, explosives, models, etc.
- Vehicle info
- Proof of liability insurance (you can purchase this on an as-needed basis if you don’t have a long-term policy) and potentially a deposit against damages
Here’s one example from the BLM, and one from Death Valley National Park.
You may also have to pay a fee, which depends on the nature of your project, the details of your production, and the location you wish to shoot. In some cases, this fee is quite low, but it can climb into the hundreds of dollars if you’re working on a larger production.
Overall, give yourself ample time to initiate contact and complete all required paperwork, especially if it’s your first experience with permitting. When you do sit down to complete paperwork (or hop online, as is often the case), read and complete the forms slowly and thoroughly to avoid any possibility that your permit application will bounce back. And of course, once you get that coveted green light, remember to follow all regulations to the letter – and of course, bring that hard-earned physical permit along on the shoot!
Top photo: Thomas Schweighofer