Monday, September 19, 2011

Busted in L.A. (the perils of shooting off permit)

Driving to our location in downtown yesterday I passed one of those ubiquitous yellow signs pointing a crew into their location. They cost about $35 per sign, when you use the film office’s service. I have a friend who makes them for me for free, but I never use them in LA because I don’t want to draw attention to my invariable off-permit shoot. As I passed the sign the thought crossed my mind that with so many shoots going on at once in Los Angeles it’s a wonder they don’t cross paths more often (visions of the Sharks and Jets dancing in the streets of NY came to mind). The thought turned out to be prophetic.

We were shooting in a small bar downtown and at a theater next door. The owners had given their consent, even without liability insurance. They had helped us with our parking strategy. We were good to go. When I turned onto the street at 6 AM I discovered cones up and down it, and no parking signs thrown up. I knew at once there was a shoot going on. In fact, it was a major Showtime series and they were having a huge extras day (100 background players in a club), in addition to their ninety-person crew. They had all the nearby parking lots bought out for trailers, extra’s holding, etc. As soon as we pulled up to unload we had security on us in a second. In these situations it’s essentially my strategy to buy time. As our guys unloaded I went and talked to the key security, transportation, and locations folks. I tried to get them to let us park there all day, even to buy the spots off them, but they weren’t going for it. Unexpectedly they were very severe and protective at first, but softened up a lot as they saw how little we were and as the day went on.

I made a big mistake though. I saw the location manager talking to what I thought was a security guy, and went up and told her a few things. Unfortunately he wasn’t security but the fire marshal. He figured out we were another shoot, and called to see if we had a permit. He peaked his head into our location took a glance and then stepped out, on the phone. I walked out to see what was up, and he asked those fateful words,
            “Do you have a permit?”
            “No.” What else could I say?
            “You can’t film in here without a permit.”
I tried to think of something convincing, but only came up with, “Well, we don’t have one.”

I tried to explain that we were super small (crew of ten, cast of three, four extras), but he didn’t care. However, soon I caught onto his tone. It became clear to me that he didn’t want to bust me, but that now that he knew I was there, he couldn’t just turn away. The trick was to do whatever I could to please him – short of paying the thousand bucks or so it would take to actually get a permit.

You'd think it would be easy to fly under the radar when you're this small.

It was before 9 AM so the permit office wasn’t open, but they do have an after hours number. I called and talked to someone who said he couldn’t guarantee anything but to go ahead and submit an online application. Knowing the film office I knew they wouldn’t get to it until at least noon. By then we’d be almost ready to move.

In a little bit the fire marshal came back, asked who I talked to. He called him, asked if I had indeed called, and that was all he needed. I saw him a couple of times later that day and he was super great. He essentially said to me, he didn’t care so long as I had done something to make the effort, but in good conscience he couldn’t just turn a blind eye. Meanwhile the permit office called around two and rejected my permit, but said I could probably get it for Thursday if I could hold off until then. I told them maybe and that I’d get back to her. We wrapped the location at 4 pm. The next day our production wrapped all together.

Technically, if you apply for a permit you're liable for the permit fee. A permit in Los Angeles cost just under $700 and is good for ten days. It covers all of the city of Los Angeles, state parks and a lot of San Fernando Valley. Most of the cities around LA (Pasadena, Burbank, etc) have their own permitting offices which assess their own fees, etc. I knew our permit would be rejected because we didn't carry liability insurance. I should write in another post more about carrying insurance, but for now, will simply say unless you're ridiculously small, you should have it.

However, the Showtime location manager slipped me some awesome advice about shooting in LA that I hadn't yet picked up: While a film permit is $700, a stills permit is only $60. Most low budget indies can get a stills permit and no one will know the difference. The only issue is if you're trying to control sound or lay track someone might call you on it, but that's unlikely. When I applied I applied for a stills, knowing that even if they assessed me the fee it wouldn't be a crazy price. Fortunately I simply told them that we were gonna try other options and they didn't charge me the fee.

Disaster averted. Phew.


  1. I know this was a while ago, but have you had any other run-ins like this. I'm doing a research paper about film permits and the cost impacts in regards to small and indie productions being able to film. I'd like to speak with you, if you don't mind.