A Filmmaker’s Must: Release Forms and Permissions

We now live in a world that requires permission for pretty much anything, and that includes filming on private property and interviewing subjects.  Gone are the days where we could just shake a hand or trust a verbal agreement.  If you are a video producer and/or filmmaker, release forms are a must!

Before I explain a little about release forms, let me briefly explain what happened to me last week while I was filming (or at least trying to) a portion of my upcoming documentary, NOT FOR RENT!  Tonia, a woman that we have been filming for the last few months about her 25-year old felony and the lack of housing even after so many years, was attending an expungement seminar at Cottages of Hope.  Now, before I go into anything, I must say that Cottages of Hope does wonderful work with individuals with criminal records in several areas: employment, financials, and housing assistance.  Because they are well known in the area for providing these services, this was one of the main reasons why I wanted to film their expungement seminar in Ogden, Utah.  A couple of months back I had contacted their director about filming at this seminar.  I explained that I would like to highlight the good they were doing at the their center and to film some “b-roll” footage of Tonia who would be attending.   The gentleman ended up being very cold and short with me for some reason.   I went on to explain that I can provide release forms and a location release and I wouldn’t have to film anyone’s face.  He blatantly said “no” and was not interested in having cameras in the seminar.  I was baffled.  Here I was trying to help them out but they didn’t want to have anything to do with our film project.

Cottages of Hope Expungement Seminar

Cottages of Hope Expungement Seminar

About two weeks ago, I interviewed a gentleman that happened to be on the Board of Directors of Cottages of Hope.  He said he would talk to the director and try to get me in.   Fast forward to last Friday.  I arrived early to the seminar with my required release forms in hand and walked into the center, without my camera.  I then asked for the director and was sent to the back room.  Again, the gentleman was very rude and didn’t want to have any part of the project.  Since no permission was given to film the seminar, I ended up walking out pretty upset at how I was treated.  (Note: After Tonia came out from the seminar, she had told me there was a newspaper photographer taking photos during the seminar. I was upset again.  I guess because I’m an independent film company, our story isn’t as important?)

So, why am I telling you this story?  I think the moral here is as a filmmaker you have to be prepared for people to not be as excited about a project as you are, or at least not being able to see the vision.  Even with release forms and a prior call (and help with a Board Member!), filming didn’t work out.  I’ve learned over the years as a director and producer of films you have to be prepared and flexible for changes in your production schedule and who you do and don’t get to interview and film.

Always have release forms in your bag ready to go. What types of release forms do I need?  Are they needed every time I film and at every location?  These are good questions.  Though I’m not an entertainment lawyer, I can give suggestions as an experienced filmmaker.  Let’s talk a little about location releases since this is the hot topic of this blog post.  Honestly, I have not been as diligent as I should be in using these ever so important forms.  According to Videomaker, “Shooting in or at private property requires permission of the owner or authorized agent. Places like your local museum, mall or zoo might seem to be public property, but they aren’t and they have rules for photo and video that are usually printed in the fine print on the back of your entry ticket or in the business office. If you are just shooting a day in the park with family and friends, even if you plan to post it to YouTube, that will be okay, but if you are shooting for commercial purposes, you might not be able to do so without permission.”

Commercial purposes is the important phrase here.  A friend of mine last year was attempting to film at the Tulip Festival but did not call or ask permission in advance.  He arrived with his crew and was turned away due to the fact that the festival charges for a “commercial photo pass” to film or photograph on the grounds.  Using your phone while filming your family and friends was okay, but as soon as it turned into a commercial project, there’s more red tape to get through!  He didn’t want to pay the expensive fee so he planned to film elsewhere.

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What about when I film or photograph a person?  Do I always need a signed release form?  The answer is: No.  The questions you must ask yourself as a producer are: Can you clearly see that person’s face? Do they speak on camera? Does the person do anything that would identify him or her to the audience at large?  If the answers are “no”, a release form is often unnecessary.  Another important question that has to be considered though, is how “public” is the place where the filming occurs. If it’s a publicly operated park, or an open space, where nobody reasonably expects that they’re entitled to any real degree of privacy, then releases and waivers probably aren’t necessary.  On the other hand, release forms ARE required when the person speaks on camera, is interviewed, can be fully identified, and is a main subject of the project.  There are always grey areas so be careful!  Bottom line is to have release forms ready to go and to get them signed if required.  Some producers are okay with a “verbal releases” from people on camera.  This is basically the person saying it’s okay to film them while actually getting their response on tape.  This is not as good as having a written release and may not hold up in court.  If you are filming large groups, you may try hanging up “Group Release Forms” around your filming area.  Generally, speaking, such releases are valid, but they’re always susceptible to claims that “I didn’t see any sign”. So it’s important to take precautions to document the positioning of the signs, etc.

It’s better to be safe than sorry.  For FREE release forms and a website that I’ve used a bunch, please visit FilmmakerIQ.

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