N.Y. City Rules Require Film Shoots to Have Permits, Insurance

By | July 15, 2008

Filmmakers and photographers who shoot on New York City’s streets and sidewalks now have a clear set of rules dictating when they must obtain permits, after years of relying on loose guidelines that civil liberties advocates said were too vague.

The rules now state clearly that productions must have permits and at least $1 million in insurance if they plan to take over a lane of traffic or leave less than eight feet of open space on a sidewalk.

Permits and insurance also are required for shoots that involve vehicles or use equipment other than hand-held devices or cameras on tripods — items like props, sets, lights, dolly tracks, screens and microphone devices.

Last year, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to make formal rules for filming and photography as part of a settlement in a lawsuit against the city on behalf of award-winning documentarian Rakesh Sharma, who was detained in 2005 when he was standing on a Manhattan sidewalk, filming with a handheld camera.

But photographers, filmmakers and civil liberties advocates were stunned by the first set of rules drafted last summer by Bloomberg’s film office. Under that proposal, any group of two or more people who were filming or taking pictures for more than 30 minutes on city property would have needed a permit and insurance.

Taken literally, those permit rules would have applied to tourists snapping photos in Times Square and families shooting videos of their children in the park.

The city insisted that the rules were only meant to apply to potentially disruptive productions, and agreed to revise the proposed regulations.

Before the rules were formally outlined, the dozens of productions that shot outdoors in the city each day typically already obtained permits and insurance if they were going to disrupt city life on sidewalks and streets, but City Hall had never established clear rules for doing so.

“We’re not really trying to change anything, we’re just clarifying some of the positions that have been in place and in practice for a number of years,” Katherine Oliver, commissioner of Bloomberg’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, said in an interview.

Many filmmakers and photographers — both amateur and professional — had long complained that the old policies were too vague and gave authorities too much leeway to harass artists on the street.

Chris Dunn, an associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sued the city in federal court on Sharma’s behalf, said the organization approved of the new rules. But he added the city has a way to go in educating authorities about what type of filming requires a permit.


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