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With Deadine Looming, Proposed NYC Film Permit Rules Rile Indies

With Deadine Looming, Proposed NYC Film Permit Rules Rile Indies

With stenciled Bolex camera protest signs and no permit to assemble, some 400 people demonstrated at a downtown Manhattan rally on Friday to protest New York’s moves to alter rules that govern filming and photography on the city’s streets. On that same day, members of NYC’s independent film community met with the Mayors Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting (MOFTB) to discuss the proposed changes. The announcement by the NYC MOFTB that it would institute formal and potentially restrictive rules for those engaged in filmmaking or photography in and around the city has stirred vocal criticism (and increasing media attention) in the final days of a public comment period.

Friday’s hour-long meeting, faciliated by IFP New York head Michelle Byrd, included filmmakers Jem Cohen and Astra Taylor, as well as leading indie producer Jeff Levy-Hinte in a discussion with MOTFB commissioner Katherine Oliver and the unit’s John Battista and Julianne Cho. It took place separately from the free speech rally organized by ad hoc advocacy group Picture New York, which has been mobilizing the emerging protest campaign.

MOFTB’s moves follow an incident involving a filmmaker who was allegedly harassed by the NYPD two years ago. The New York Times reported on June 29 that Indian documentarian Rakesh Sharma (“Final Solution”) was arrested by police for filming without a permit in May 2005 and subsequently denied a permit to film without written explanation. The new rules were written to settle a lawsuit brought against the city by the New York Civil Liberties Union representing Sharma.

Under the proposals, which the NYC MOFTB says simply “codify existing procedures,” “Film or still photography activity involving a tripod and a crew of 5 or more persons (at one site for 10 or more minutes) would require a permit,” in the words of the MOFTB proposal, “Or the same activity among two people at a single site for more than 30 minutes.” And anyone obtaining a permit must carry $1 million in liability insurance.

Independent filmmakers feel they will be unduly squeezed out of production by the changes. Acclaimed New York indie filmmaker Jem Cohen (“Chain,” “Lost Book Found“), in a catalyzing email that alerted the film community to the changes on July 13th, said, “The fact is that we simply CANNOT predict where, when, and how long we are going to film or photograph; we CANNOT afford expensive liability insurance policies; we occasionally NEED to work with other people or to use tripods to support our gear.”

Others are worried less about getting a permit than what may happen if the police have the ability to stop anyone with a camera for violating these new permit rules. Filmamker Matt Kohn, who shot without a permit for part of his documentary “Call It Democracy,” said, “I personally believe that the NYC police department is looking for a legal cover so that they can choose to arrest people without fearing that they will in turn be sued.”

The MOFTB has taken some heat for seemingly trying to subvert input from filmmakers. The rules were proposed back on May 25, 2007 and a previous comment period included a June 28th public meeting, but the contents of the proposed changes (available on the MOFTB website) didn’t seem to permeate New York’s filmmaking community until Cohen’s email two weeks ago. Associate Commissioner Julianne Cho from the MOFTB explained that the move to create proposed new rules came as part of a settlement from the recent lawsuit brought by the NYCLU. After receiving initial concern from Cohen and Picture New York, the comment period was re-opened, and extended through this Friday, August 3 and members of New York’s film community are hoping that the MOFTB will consider additional feedback from local filmmakers and members of the community.

Pioneer Theater programmer Ray Privett who attended Friday’s rally said of the event, “A lot of political protest actions leave you paralyzed – feeling problems are so big that nothing you do will get results. That leads to righteous indignation, and not much more. This was different. Sloganeering was sidestage; action was centerstage.” In addition to mobilizing the rally, Picture New York has set up a website with information, a petition (which now had more than 10,000 signatures on Monday evening) and an online effort to generate comments via video, email or phone calls, during the open comment period.

The next step in the process will be for the MOFTB to review the comments and then take one of several actions, Cho told indieWIRE: to establish the new rules as written, revise them and put them in place, or to start over with a new draft and hold a new comment period and hearing.

David Segal, a member of the performance artist group Olde English (with Caleb Bark, Ben Popik, Adam Conover, and Raphael Bob-Waksberg), creators of the humorous response video, “Free NYC Rap,” said of the new rules, “The main issue for us is if a cop wants to come and hassle you, he will. There’s a fear of ticketing or worse.” That the rules seem impossibly broad and could be interpreted differently at different locations around the city and by different enforcement officials appears to be a wide fear, as well. Other video responses by Julie Talen, Juliana Luecking and Jem Cohen are available on the Picture New York website.

A sticking point for many who have voiced an opinion in comments on the web is the cost of insurance. “I think filmmakers need to understand the costs and liabilities of their work,” advised Winnie Wong of DeWitt Stern, who regularly publishes articles aimed at helping independents understand film insurance. Noting that obtaining a permit anywhere requires such insurance, she said that filmmakers are better off with it than without it, but added that it can cost a minimum of $2000 for an annual liability-only policy for short term coverage, while a policy for 30 to 60 days can run $750. Echoing the organization’s website, MOTFB’s Julianne Cho noted that under the proposal, waivers would be available for media makers unable to afford the required insurance. She also clarified any misconception about how the rules would affect students, noting that students are covered insurance-wise under their school policies.

In a statement to indieWIRE late Monday, MOTFB’s Julianne Cho emphasized that her office will continue to accept and review public comments regarding the proposed rule. She added that in the spirit of that process she was happy to meet on Friday with the contingent from the indie community to hear their views.

Others from New York’s film community have expressed a desire to work with the City to develop more appropriate guidelines for obtaining permits where necessary, while maintaining rights of individuals to pursue creative endeavors in public spaces. Assisting unofficially as the process moves forward, IFP’s Michelle Byrd told indieWIRE, “Where IFP can provide real leadership, I hope, is by working with individual filmmakers to develop some concrete counter proposals within the framework of the reality that there are likely going to be rules.”

But some filmmakers remain at odds with the general move to restrict filmmaking and photography, even as they agree to provide feedback. “What I would like to see happen is that people have to recognize that some things cannot be logistically regulated,” noted filmmaker Matt Kohn, “And constitutionally shouldn’t be regulated.”

[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]

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