If you’re a local filmmaker and thought it safe to make a film without the City of Fresno’s official approval––even on private property with the owner’s permission––think again. At least that’s what Fresno Film Commissioner Ray Arthur says.
In July, Arthur sent out a reminder to the Fresno Filmmakers Alliance (FFA), warning local filmmakers that City Hall “requires a film permit for all productions within the City of Fresno.” This reminder came appended to a posting from the L.A. Film Commission about “the significant personal and financial peril” that guerrilla filmmakers take when ignoring film permit rules. That posting and Arthur’s reminder can be found at the FFA’s Web site (www.fresnofilmmakersalliance.com).
Controversy has dogged the Fresno Film Commission since it introduced the film permit policy in 2007. Originally, the policy contained a censorship clause stipulating that the commission would “not consider requests [for film permits] that may reflect poorly on the City.” Because of that obvious threat to First Amendment rights as well as other questionable elements in the policy, Michael Risher, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, challenged the legality of the policy on behalf of the local nonprofit film organization, Fresno Filmworks. The censorship clause was quickly deleted, but other problems have lingered.
Most fundamental is the question of whether a permit can be required and enforced without the City Council first enacting municipal law for it. Given that loophole, beginning in 2008, the commission twice brought a proposal before the Council to do just that. In both instances, the Council, after hearing objections from Bill Simon for the Greater Fresno Area Chapter of the ACLU and from concerned filmmakers, postponed a decision, and in 2009, former City Manager Andy Souza decided to drop plans to make the policy law. As a result, the policy, which can be found at the Film Commission’s Web site (www.fresnofilm.com), remains in place, without the additional revisions and exemptions (beyond the deletion of the censorship clause) that the ACLU and Filmworks had negotiated with the city.
According to the published policy, all filmmakers—professional and nonprofessional alike—are required to obtain general liability insurance in the amount of $2 million. Student filmmakers are exempt from that financial requirement only when filming on school property. Although waivers for permits may be granted to students and small professional crews, filmmakers must still apply for the waivers, which amounts to a de facto permit process and does not eliminate the insurance requirements.
The permit has taken on even greater dubious legal standing since December 2009, when the city eliminated funding for the Film Commission. Thus, the granting body is no longer an official arm of city government but rather a division of the nonprofit corporation Creative Fresno.
With a new city manager, plans for a film ordinance may return, hopefully with fewer restrictions on student and independent filmmakers, as well as less onerous financial burdens on them. Until that happens, though, be aware that filming on private or public property in the city without permission of the city’s Film Commission will make you a guerrilla filmmaker whether you like it or not.