Shooting on Location and Location Releases

As I get more and more involved with the entertainment industry, I’ve found myself branching out of simple legal work and into the production side of this incredibly interesting world. One aspect that isn’t going anywhere, however, is the need to protect my clients. In a recent production meeting, I was asked the straightforward but excellent question, “Why do we need to use location releases?”

To some, it might seem like a simple exercise—after all, if the property owner is allowing us to shoot on location, why get it in writing? The answer, in general terms, is the same for any contract: to put the agreement in an easily-understandable format so it’s enforceable days, months, or even years later. Although this makes sense as a basic principle, there are also nuances that make location releases very useful.

Releases are helpful in clarifying the roles and expectations of the property owner and the production company. First, like other types of liability releases or waivers, they ensure that the contracting parties identify what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. If an owner only wants the outside of his property shot, then he should specify this in the release; otherwise, the production team will rarely be held to violate its terms unless they had reason to know the owner’s wishes. Similarly, if the production company only negotiates to shoot on a particular date without any allowance for weather, it will generally be held to that. This can turn an otherwise nice and sunny shoot into a wet, overcast one.

Moreover, the production company will generally want full control over the footage shot as well as how it’s used. Where the property owner wants to have the right to review the footage to ensure it’s not negative or disparaging before publication (not completely unusual, especially where public property is concerned), this should be clarified prior to shooting. Otherwise, the production team may wind up with hours of footage it can’t or won’t use, often due to the fear of litigation or blacklisting.

A location release can also allocate liability for injuries resulting from the production. For instance, a crew shooting an interview in a busy nightclub or restaurant could be liable if someone trips over cabling and gets hurt. A release, however, can put the legal responsibility upon the property owner. In practice, this may be handled by the production company’s insurance which protects against such liability, but is not an automatic (especially with newer or smaller productions). For more active venues such as clubs, restaurants, and attractions, such occurrences may be covered by the owner’s property insurance, but this is an issue that must be considered and should be designated in the release.

But a key reason for location releases is the generally uncontrollable: the shooting environment. What happens when music is playing in the background? Or people can be identified in the shot? How about artwork or video? These issues can all be handled with separate releases from the rightsholders, but it’s often administratively prohibitive (and sometimes impossible) to clear every item or person in a shot beforehand. Oftentimes, a blanket release or notice will be enough to clear people, but not the property shown. Generally, the property owner will promise the production company that it is authorized to grant recording rights to the items. That way if someone later sues the production company, it may be entitled to indemnification by the owner.

While location releases typically come in similar formats, it doesn’t make the production process less interesting or less exciting to be a part of. I look forward to continuing on this journey, making the transition from attorney to attorney/producer, and thank everyone for supporting my pursuits.

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