On a professional documentary production, obtaining proper written permissions is the responsibility of the producer and can prevent complicated problems down the line in the event the project is licensed for broadcast or distribution. The four most common release forms used in documentary productions are:
- Appearance Release, for non-actors
- Minor Appearance Release, for children, it must be signed by a parent or legal guardian
- Materials Release, for obtaining permission from the owner or license holder to use photographs, audio, video, film or other media which may be copyrighted or owned by others
- Location Release, for use when you are filming on property you do not own
Before embarking on a documentary project, it’s a good idea to establish a relationship with a qualified and reputable entertainment attorney that understands documentary. If you’re working with professional actors you’ll probably need a special actor/model release form. I’ve assembled the forms I use most often in my productions into a PDF document you may download from here, the releases were written for me by a reputable entertainment attorney. Revise these forms as necessary for your particular production and requirements. Please be advised that this post nor the downloadable document constitutes any form of legal opinion or advice. To learn more about the legal dimension of documentary filmmaking I recommend the following books:
- The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers: A Legal Toolkit for Independent Producers by Thomas A. Crowell
- The Independent Film Producer’s Survival Guide: A Business and Legal Sourcebook by Gunnar Erickson, Mark Halloran, and Harris Tulchin
- Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music by Sheila Curran Bernard and Kenn Rabin
Releases are important because some film festivals, most funding bodies, and all broadcasters and distributors will require them as part of the chain of title, a series of documents that establish the producer’s right to put the components into their documentary. For locations, it’s important to know who actually owns the building or land you want to film on and also to find out who the current occupier is. For example, if you are filming in a rented house you should get permission from the landlord as well as the tenant who is renting the property. Sometimes you don’t need a location release, but you should make that decision with the advice of your attorney. A consultation now will cost far less than trying to clean up a mess in the future.
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