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Film Permits: The Sequel



How do you make our ancient redwoods even more beautiful? You photograph them as a backdrop to Brad Pitt. Wait. Flip that. How do you make one ancient actor even more beautiful?

Regardless of how you flip the question, that's what Details magazine did in its November cover spread, which you can see online. The magazine took the Bradster, who, like a redwood tree, gets more beautiful every year, and posed him amid our trees and sorrel. And, by doing it when they did, they saved themselves some money and hassle, since the county's new film permit ordinance, passed unanimously on May 19 at the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting, had not yet gone into effect.

I warned readers about the unconstitutionality of the then-proposed film ordinance in my last column, after the supervisors had passed an early draft on first reading, also by unanimous vote. It needed a second public reading to go into effect. At that point the supervisors tabled it, asking staff to bring back a revised version. This one passed under the consent calendar, with no comments from the public.

If this column were a Hollywood movie, it would have begun with a sexy actor alone in forbidding but gorgeous scenery, foreshadowing the glorious doom that will surely come our way. Then something surprising would happen.

You might expect this column to be an Oliver Stone-esque tale of government corruption, greed and ineptitude. That's where I'd focus on the collusion between our supervisors and big media, using an unconstitutional law for the story plot. But I prefer the Steven Spielberg epics because, by the time we get to the end, governments and the corporate power people that started the mess learn their lessons or are all dead or overthrown, leaving us hopeful for the dawn of a new day.

So, in a shocking twist that the trailer makes sure you know, the director makes the bad guys the good guys. And we are left with the notion that government of the people can be for the people.

The film permit ordinance that the board of supervisors adopted May 19 is one that makes sense. It will require any big-budget productions that plan big stuff — the photographing of an environmentally-sensitive megastar against environmentally-sensitive megatrees, for example, to apply for a permit. The rest of us small town nobodies are free to snap away and dream that our photos or videos will go viral, get the attention of Robert Redford, end up the surprise hit of the Sundance Film Festival and leave us rich and famous, hobnobbing with Brad Pitt. Even when a permit is required, it waives the fee for student productions and photography for charitable purposes.

The original draft of the ordinance copied some of the permit requirements towns like Arcata have in place, which are constitutionally problematic. I hope those towns will now look at the county ordinance for suggested changes. First, the new law specifically exempts any filming or photography that does not require such things as tearing down buildings, use of fire, wild animals, or cranes, and that doesn't happen late at night or early in the morning. In other words, if you are making a small movie and filming in a way that doesn't disrupt anything, you don't need a permit. It doesn't matter if you are a student, an amateur filmmaker or a commercial photographer. No mess, no fuss.

Moreover, it specifically defines and exempts news media in a way that includes online media and that doesn't restrict news organizations to coverage of breaking news. Finally, where there is wiggle room, the ordinance says the measurement should be "any activity that a reasonable person would view as having an impact on persons, property or the natural environment that is substantively different from the level of impact attributable to personal photography."

I first poked my nose into this film permit business when a student asked me to sign a form that would help him get a permit to film on the Arcata Plaza. The city had charged him $150 for a permit and I thought that was a mistake. In attempting to get him his money refunded, I found the city hadn't made a little mistake; it had a big mistake on its hands — a film permit policy that was so blatantly unconstitutional, I did something my mother used to tell me to do whenever I would complain about something. She said write your congressman. In this case, I called the mayor and then wrote every city council person and made enough of a nuisance of myself that City Manager Karen Diemer drafted an amendment to exempt any filming for educational purposes unless the filming required street closures or other extraordinary measures. Arcata adopted this amendment in March.

The new county ordinance is better. I don't think students should have special privileges that no other humble citizen of Humboldt County has. Anyone who wants to photograph or film something on public property and doesn't cause major disruptions or danger should not need a permit to do so.

These laws need to recognize the new visual, uber-commercial world we live in. Anyone who takes a photo or video has the potential to make money from it. There are no amateur photographers or videographers anymore. We all have the opportunity to partner with Google and make money off our media creations. And since any of us can instantly upload our photos or videos to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or blogs, we are all journalists now.

Even Brad Pitt. He told NPR's Terry Gross in 2011 that he dropped out of the University of Missouri's journalism program one paper short of a degree to pursue a career in acting. Who needs a journalism degree when you can play a reporter in your first major film role and then play a spy posing as a reporter, and work with Robert Redford both times?

That sends such a lousy message to my journalism students I say slap the guy with a permit fee. That's a danger to society.

—Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. When she publishes her memoirs she will gladly sell the movie rights to Brangelina.

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