One of the first major hurdles any production will face is locations. Here is how you can work with (and around) that.
The tired axiom associated with real estate applies very much to filmmaking: Location, location, location.
Without good locations, everything else is at risk of falling flat. The problem is that filmmakers focus less on finding great locations then they do on finding the right cameras, lighting a scene properly, or casting the right actor.
Does that mean locations are any less important than those also important things? Quite the opposite, in fact. Locations are often the difference between the amateurs and the pros.
So what does it take to find and secure the right locations? Money helps. But it’s not the only solution. There are a lot of specifics when it comes to shooting on locations legally.
This is why we’re going to provide you with all the answers you need for the permitting process, including a free location release form.
Table of Contents
Over the years No Film School has published many stories that introduced and highlighted location scouting tools. Most recently we wrote about how you can use google earth to scout your next shoot.
We also have our ultimate movie location scout guide which provides this free tech scout checklist:
We also love these 8 tips from a veteran location scout manager as another great locations resource. If you can find and work with a location scout, by all means do it!
New tools are emerging in the space all the time, so if you have ideas about some or if you know of any please share them with us and the community.
But after you've found a location, you need to secure it.
And for that... you'll need this:
Location Release Forms
We’re all fans of guerilla filmmaking but the more you can button things up, the better.
Sometimes you can ‘steal’ shots here and there and not end up with legal issues, and we’ll cover all of that later in the post, but it’s always best to have everything in writing.
Not just so you don’t get shut down by an angry landowner, tenant, merchant, business, or resident… but so you can get the movie released.
Yes! Not enough filmmakers think that part through. Let’s play out a scenario here that too many filmmakers don’t consider.
Say you've completed your shoot and it included some stuff at locations you didn’t exactly pay for or permit. All is fair and love and war and filmmaking. You cut your movie. You get a sales agent. You get into festivals. A distributor wants to put your movie on streaming platforms… maybe even limited theatrical… you’re going to pay back investors and maybe even make some money.
Uh oh.... Did you shoot on a location that you weren’t supposed to? Can someone sue you over this?
Now you and your film could suddenly have a major stumbling block. Do you want this to be the reason nobody sees your movie?
The answer is no.
What could have just taken a little producing and elbow grease back during production shouldn’t be the thing that stops a finished movie from seeing the light of day.
So let’s come back to present-day reality. You are shooting your film in a few weeks and have a few locations in mind.
Do future you a favor and get a Release form SIGNED.
You want something like this, it doesn't have to be this exactly, and you should work with a lawyer to draft your own versions. But in lieu of that to start, go ahead and drag this one to your desktop and use it!
Now let's talk about the other side of using locations legally...
A film permit or location permit is very different than a location release.
Even if you have a location release signed you may not have a permit. The difference is an important matter of legality.
Having the owner's permission to shoot in their store doesn’t mean you have the cities permission to park your truck in front. Or the neighboring business’ permission to disrupt their regular hours.
Permitting is a much bigger and more costly process. It could bring with it some requirements from the city permitting office you don’t want to be forced to meet.
And this is why so many filmmakers will just decide to avoid the permit process if they can. We’ll get to how you might do that, and if you even CAN do that in a bit.
First, let’s go over the ‘legit’ path with regards to permitting a location.
How to get permission to film in a location
This process will be different depending on where you are shooting, and so the first step will be for you to determine the laws, rules, and permitting office relevant to your specific filming location.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll take you through the process in Los Angeles because we’re quite familiar with the steps of the process in that city. But there is another reason…
Shooting in LA is typically harder than in other places. You’d think it was the opposite right? Because people have been shooting in LA since it was dirt roads and horses?
Because LA and its residents are so familiar with the industry and all that comes with… they’re more likely to demand a little more of someone shooting. Not only that, the city has had to create a lot of specific laws around filming permits because a lot of people film here and a lot of things have happened as a result… not all good!
So let’s use LA as a model because maybe your process will be far easier. In some cities, you may find cooperation that you simply wouldn’t find in the greater Los Angeles area. They’re used to filming here… and they’ve been burned.
This brings up another subject; being the best ambassador of our industry and process wherever you shoot. We’ll talk about location best practices late. Let’s stick with permitting and how to get a permit.
How much does it cost to get a permit
This will vary, but the first step in Los Angeles is that you go to Film LA and figure out what kind of permit you’ll need. This is something you want to get started early. You need plenty of time to find out if the location you wish to permit is even an option for you.
What does this mean?
You guessed it.
Start scouting locations EARLY in your process. We can’t stress the importance of this enough. You need options and then you need back-up options.
Let’s go over some of the costs that can be associated with getting a permit because this will also help you budget locations. Here are some details right from FilmLA on the matter of pricing.
First, What is this FilmLA I keep mentioning?
FilmLA is actually a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that was designed to help the community AND the filmmakers and countless productions. In their own words:
FilmLA’s core service is to provide expert, centralized coordination of multi-jurisdictional on-location filming permits in the world’s highest-volume film production region.
Ok now that we know what that is, the first thing to keep in mind is if you permit through FilmLA they may decide that you need a FilmLA monitor on set. Or any number of expensive items.
Film LA Permit
The good news here is that FilmLA will work with you. The fact that you can review the plan in advance with them helps you to find ways to mitigate costs.
When you permit, be ready for big costs:
There is another cost associated with permitting that you’ll need to address:
In a nutshell, Workers’ compensation provides protection for employees who are injured or get sick on the job.
While we're on this subject: a production really needs insurance. It’s like driving without a seatbelt to skip insurance.
It’s worse...it’s like driving drunk at very high speeds against the flow of traffic to shoot without insurance.
You also need insurance to permit any location.
Ok, so this permitting thing is expensive. If you’re not shooting for a non-profit or for a student film you could be unable to afford these rates.
So what do you do?
You need to read this next section:
What is a location I need to permit vs. one I don’t?
Ok here comes the bad news:
There aren’t going to be any locations in the City of Los Angeles that you can film on without a permit. Even in the privacy of your own home.
This may seem like a shock, but it is the law. Filming without a permit in Los Angeles is illegal.
Do you really need a permit to film on private property? Unless you are just recording/shooting for yourself (i.e. a home movie)... yeah.
If you’re making content with any intent towards commercial use you need a permit.
Other cities may have different rules, and we strongly advise anyone to research the area in question at length before just deciding to go shoot there.
If you’re in New York, for example, and looking to film there or in the New York City Parks, this resource can help you get the permitting information you need. For any city or region, we recommend you research the topic thoroughly and learn the laws and requirements for any type of filming.
This question though gets more to the issue of if can you “get away” with shooting in private property without a permit. The answer is, sure you can.
Then we’re expanding more into the territory of guerilla filmmaking. We’ll say right off the bat that No Film School does not condone or advise anyone to break the law when filming anywhere.
Because look, the upside to stealing some shots and going without a permit is that you get everything in the can and you save hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars. The downside is your production gets shut down. You get arrested. Your gear gets confiscated. The list goes on.
How realistic is all that worst-case stuff?
That depends entirely on the circumstances... and they will be unpredictable. Because even when you think you have every angle covered, shoots have a way of surprising you.
Suppose you shoot in the privacy of your own home and decide to do so without a permit. Maybe you make some noise and it bothers a neighbor. Maybe the neighbor is in a bad mood and decides to call LAPD. They can come and make your life very difficult, end your shoot, etc.
Production is about trying to eliminate risk and ensure as much room for creative success as possible. Sure you can take a calculated risk here and there.
But use common sense. While that scenario may not play out that way or at all, you should know that if you’re going to do anything at all disruptive to anyone having a permit is your safety blanket.
Do people do it all the time despite it being illegal? Yes. Does that mean doing it doesn't come with risk exposure? No.
Now that we know filming with a permit is the best legal option and we know it can cost you… let’s find out how you can save some money in that very same locations department.
How much do movies pay for locations? This is a big question with a massive range of answers. A movie could pay nothing. A movie could pay tens of thousands of dollars. It depends entirely on the shoot, what it entails, the size of the production footprint, etc.
Let’s talk here about ways to save money on locations and not broad strokes like what it costs to shut down Times Square for a massive action sequence (probably a lot).
Free film locations
A free location could be private property or a place where you know owner/resident/business and that party is willing to grant use and access to you without compensation.
All you’d need to do then is permit it! These types of situations are great because if you can limit the size and scope of your project, the more likely you’ll be able to pull a cheaper permit and end up spending very little. So when you think about locations think about what you can get access to for free or very little. That’s the type of place you want to permit.
Wait! We lied! There is one other thing you need to get in addition to a permit even for a free location…
Film Location Agreement
Yep, this can be the same idea as your location release form. It can also be more nuanced and you should run things by other producers or legal counsel. It’s entirely possible that for some locations a boilerplate “film location agreement” you downloaded from the internet and had someone sign won’t hold up.
So this is just another reminder that you should get something in writing! So, say you get the location in writing -- let's move on to the next tricky part of all this...
Shooting Without a Permit
If you decide to shoot without a permit and understand you are rolling the dice, there are a few things you can do to help mitigate things. While again, we don’t condone this path, we have some helpful tips on how to walk it. The first is that you make sure you do everything safely, and put safety above all other concerns. This should be true no matter what, but if you are choosing to operate outside the system pay extra special attention to it if that's even possible.
Here is how you can avoid falling into the latter category:
- Keep a Low Profile. Keeping a low profile means having a small crew. It means having a small camera. It means not bringing a giant truck. It means planning to keep the entire operation minimal. How minimal can you get? The bigger the production in size and scale, the more likely you’ll bite off more than you can chew.
- Keeping the Peace. If you attract unwanted attention or disrupt the flow of the world around you without a permit to shoot in it, you need to be diplomatic. And that doesn’t mean lie. The best thing you can do is be grateful, honest, apologetic, and understanding. You might feel like what you are doing is important, and it might be very important to you and many other people. Chances are the person who is bothered by your production does not agree. What’s important to them is their regular day. If your shoot is getting in their way, think about it from their perspective and fall on your sword. If you personally can’t do this, get a producer who can.
- Stick to the Plan. Make sure you shot list these sections, particularly if they are in public. Know what shots you need the most and get those first. Try not to linger if you don’t have to.
- Don’t use a boom pole. Go with lavs or MIS if you absolutely have to; a boom pole is a pretty good giveaway that you’re shooting something.
- Don't use any weapons, stunts, vehicles, heavy equipment or do anything that could put anyone in danger. Permits exist to help keep people safe. If you are shooting guerilla-style you need to be smart about keeping everyone on set out of danger because there aren't checks and balances in place to do that for you.
- Use natural light. This should also go without saying but don’t start rigging anything significant. Let your crew know in advance you need to shoot it small scale and with natural light, so your DP doesn’t kill you on set.
- Have release forms handy. If someone walks by and might be in a shot for a beat too long, you’d better get them to sign a release. Otherwise, you can have trouble down the road.
- Make friends with the neighbors. Make sure everyone around the area not just at the location itself is onboard. Let them know in advance. Someone could offer you their house to film in. If the neighbor doesn’t like it and doesn’t know you could have a problem.
Securing a location and communicating with location owners
A big part of all of this comes from scouting, and often the best bet is working with a location scout. Professional location scouts are extremely good at what they do, and they’ll cost you. But the fact of the matter is they handle all of this all of the time, and they do it the right way. They’ll also have, from experience, tons of options that could work hopefully at varying price points.
If you can’t get a location scout, you might be able to work with someone who’s been a location assistant or who has worked in locations before and is looking to make a jump to a lead role.
In lieu of all that, if you have to go it alone, there are a lot of great resources for scouting locations available to you. First off, you can use giggster, a great tool for discovering a wide range of locations and working with the property owners interested in renting their locations for filming.
This is great for a few reasons. One is that a lot of places don’t really WANT a film crew running around disrupting business and making life difficult. If you know anything about what it’s like to be around a film crew, you don’t want one around you or in your home or in your place of business.
Finding locations that want shoots to happen in them is a great way to avoid a lot of unpleasantness. If you aren't going to permit your locations you need to do an even better job connecting to the location reps and owners and laying out a good plan so things don't go sideways. Diplomacy is the name of the game here.
Sound Stages and Film Ranches
One thing to keep in mind when shooting in Los Angeles is that there are numerous stages and ranches in the area that will simplify some of the processes… but come at an additional cost.
Stages, for example, are already permitted for filming. So you won’t need to handle that process. You can also rely on a film ranch for many things. Many movie ranches are in the thirty-mile zone, or the studio zone, meaning they will allow production to film at them and feel "out of the city" without unions requiring that production put it’s cast and crew up in hotels.
The 30 Mile Zone is a radius marked at the intersection of West Beverly Blvd and North La Cienega in Los Angeles. Anything in the zone is considered local. Random trivia: The tabloid news site TMZ is an abbreviation of Thirty Mile Zone.
The zone can help you as a filmmaker because you can shoot in it and not be “on location”. A lot of the neighboring cities to Los Angeles want to encourage this, so we suggest you explore such options like this one through Santa Clarita.
I have had good experience working on these, but one thing I would advise is really taking into account the length of shoots and the distance from people’s homes. I had shoot at a film ranch that was technically in the zone I produced, and making the trip ‘home’ after a long night shoot meant I was traveling in the morning with rush hour traffic. It was excruciating, and I was exhausted. In hindsight, a hotel would have been a good idea just to maximize sleep.
But we don’t always have the budget for such things, So, once you find locations you love, you need to establish a good relationship with the locations owners. If it isn’t a location that’s interested in your business, do your best to prove to them that you will abide by any restrictions they set forth.
If you don’t think you can do that, then pick another location.
Another personal anecdote, I once shot in a parking lot and had permitted through the city. The production wasn’t massive scale, but we had a truck with gear and a decent sized crew. The business owner of one of the businesses near the lot never signed the agreement and, even though his employees signed and agreed, they weren’t really able to make that call.
Once we were loaded in and filming, our behavior disrupted this business. The owner that was so hard for me to get a hold of to ask for permission was suddenly on the spot in a flash, giving me an earful.
It was all I could do to apologize and keep him distracted while the team finished up the shoot. I didn’t want things to escalate to involving police or any legal trouble.
You’ve heard it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission. It’s definitely not easier when it comes to a shoot. If you’re not going to get permission, you should find another place to shoot.
Another reason why? Be a good ambassador of what we do. A producer that takes advantage of "asking for forgiveness" is sort of like a producer that doesn’t pay their crew on time. It makes the rest of us look bad, and it makes people generally wary of productions in general.
If you want to have an easier time getting a good location, be good for the location. Just like if you want to work with a crew again, pay them on time. Don’t develop a reputation. You want to make many projects and build a career, not just one that helps you build enemies.
Hopefully, this resource has helped you figure out how to approach the locations process. Locations are characters in the story. They are critical to creating the reality you want onscreen. Good ones make a movie, bad ones pull audiences right out.
Have any location horror stories, tips, or workarounds you can share? Maybe the name of a great location scout? Let us know in the comments.
If you're feeling good about locations you should be ready to start budgeting. Check out our 12 Indispensable tips for budgeting your indie feature.