Fresno Filmmakers Beware

If you are a filmmaker in Fresno, your working conditions changed suddenly this summer—you may now be a guerrilla filmmaker and not even know it!

In July, the Fresno Film and Entertainment Commission quietly published its new film permit requirement, giving the public little opportunity to comment beforehand. You can find the policy at the Film Commission’s website.

Essentially, all filmmakers shooting within the City of Fresno must now apply for a permit. The Commission distinguishes between “minimal impact” and “beyond minimal impact,” but imposes the same insurance requirement on all filmmakers, whether a Hollywood producer completing a feature film or a student filmmaker making her first five-minute short: both must provide evidence of a million dollars in general liability insurance. For a big company, the cost of that coverage is, of course, inconsequential. But for a student or low-income amateur, it’s a big deal.

The Commission allows a few exceptions to its broad policy: news media coverage, home movies, and student filmmaking on school property are exempt. But all other situations require the permit. The Commission promises that “minimal impact” applications will be processed within three working days.

Violators need not fear fines from the city for now. But be prepared for private property owners to refuse permission to film on their property if you can’t produce a permit. And police officers can ask you to pack up your equipment if you are shooting on a city sidewalk. When more schools become aware of the policy, students will be instructed to stick to campus for their film projects.

While city administrators defend the new policy on grounds of promoting safety and protecting the city from liability, the wording of the new document reveals much: “It is the intent . . . of COF to not consider requests that may reflect poorly on the City.” So much for any claim that First Amendment rights are not involved.

Fresno city administrators refer to other permit policies in California as models for their own and have shrugged off the controversy in New York City this summer when officials there attempted to impose stringent permit requirements. The New York Civil Liberties Union came to the defense of filmmakers protesting that policy. Fortunately, the same is happening in Fresno with the ACLU of Northern California becoming involved.

Until the city is persuaded to allow more exceptions to its policy, Fresno filmmakers will have to meet the permit requirements––or take their chances.