The Reluctant Release: When They Don’t Want to Sign the Release Form

Release forms. No one likes them. But you need them. You need releases for people, places and for materials. A lot has been written about this subject, so I won’t go into it here.

What do you do when someone doesn’t want to sign one? I recently had this happen with a couple locations for my documentary project. Here’s how I tried to work through the problems.

Be Patient.

My first reaction was not patient, or helpful. Didn’t these people know I needed this? What was their problem? I’m nerdy enough that I almost always get a small shot of adrenaline when I get a form returned, or an email about a form. Weird, right? So, inevitably when I’m first reading it, I’m not calm and cool.

And of course the real issue is: what is their problem? Why would they say no? In my case the locations didn’t say no, outright. Both offered ways to get permission, but neither were acceptable. As I reviewed both, it became clear that one location simply didn’t completely understand what was being asked of them. The other was, as I would find out, going to be rigid and over reaching in their requests. Let’s look at the first location.

Try to get to the core issue. Get the facts. Why don’t they want to sign the release?

Be Clear.

I realized that the initial request had not been very clear. It had been handled through a 3rd party, so I was able to get into contact with the location myself and start to work through the issues.

I explained what the project was. I showed them what gear I would be bringing (a single mirrorless camera, not a full crew). I talked about risk, the fact that I would be attending the event anyway. We talked about the fact that the event was the subject of the film, not the location. The camera I would bring is the same as I would bring if I were a parent. There was no additional risk to the location.

Be Persuasive.

Once I convinced them that my presence would not be a major risk, I began to ease their other concerns.

It became clear that the location was concerned about being shown in a negative light. I’m not sure if they had a bad experience before, but I worked to put their mind at ease. I told them about the film, and why it was important. I sold them on what I was doing, on the purpose of the project. I reassured them that the location was just background for the film.

At one point the location said they didn’t have the power to give me permission to shoot because they were just the venue. I explained that while I had permission from the event and the people involved, because it was private property, I needed permission to shoot there. They asked to get written permission from the event organizers, which I provided.

Be Flexible. (Where you can.)

The location asked me to change a few things in the location release. None of them were important. I felt they were overkill, but I could easily put them into the document if it made them feel better.

I specifically limited the number of people in my crew to one. I specifically mentioned I would not hold them liable for physical injury to myself. (This was in addition to existing language already related to liability). They asked to only be shown in a positive light, but I agreed to not show the location in a negative light. I could do that because the location isn’t the focus on the film. I would be surprised if anyone could even identify it by the footage. The location is a neutral part of the film, just a venue.

It’s not always possible to meet every demand or request. Don’t give up more than you should. Don’t agree to things that might compromise your film, your finances, or put you in a legal bind.

Be Persistent.

After I made the changes, the location representative said he would sign the release. And then went silent for 2 weeks. The shoot date was rapidly approaching. I had an email saying they agreed to the release, but no signed release and no plan to obtain one.

I waited a few days and sent a email with a countersigned copy of the release. All they had to do was print and sign it. I suggested I could just get it from the office when I arrived. Whatever I could do to make it easy for them. About a week out from the event I sent another email, asking if they had seen the previous one and including the release again.

2 days before the event I called them. I left a voicemail. I thanked them for agreeing to sign the release, and suggested I could just swing by the office and pick up a signed copy since I would be there already.

1 day before the event I got an email saying the document would be waiting for me at the office. I had started a month and a half before the shoot date trying to get permission. It had taken almost 6 weeks to get this done. But I needed this location.

Be Creative.

While I was in limbo about permission, I started working on Plan B. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

If the worst happened, I could go to the public street and shoot an establishing shot of the location. I could do interviews off site. I could fill in with B Roll from other locations. The only thing needed from that location that I couldn’t get without permission would be some recording from the award ceremony. My plan was to audio record it and then seek permission after the fact to use it. If I was not able to get permission, I would use voiceover to describe the events.

That would not be ideal, but it would be better than nothing.

If you cannot get permission, what can you get? Can you get a different person, different location, use a different audio element? What else can you do to communicate the same thing? We already know you’re creative or you wouldn’t be making a film. So be creative and work it out.

Which brings me to the other location.

This one I did contact directly. But they sent back my release and had altered about 80% of it. Most of the changes were things I was already doing, so it didn’t matter. But 2 parts were not OK. We went back and forth a bit, and it became clear that at least of of the points would not be something we could agree on. They would not bend and neither would I.

So now what?

Same scenario as before. Be creative. I was only looking for a few shots of awards, and to interview a few people who were going to attend. So I began to find other options.

My film isn’t about a particular event at a location. There are multiple events throughout the year. My film is the story of these kids going through the season. So, not being able to shoot at one location was not the end of the film, or necessarily a big deal. I would have liked to shoot there, to use footage I captured there. It would have made things easier. But I went to work on doing what I could while I was in town.

I contacted several other locations near the tournament, looking for a space to shoot interviews. There were some folks I was hoping to talk with who were available at this location, so I needed a place. In the end it was a contact made through someone I knew that opened the doors. Building relationships is important. I would be able to shoot my interviews in a location near the tournament, but out of the elements and in a relatively quiet space.

I also shot interviews with students before and after the tournament. This won’t be the only tournament that wasn’t represented in the film. I only attended 5 others this year. The difference is that I was at this one and could have shot video. Even though this wasn’t ideal, it also wasn’t a deal breaker. I made the most of the situation and pressed on.

Every project will have set backs. Every creative work will have hurdles, roadblocks, detours. The difference between finishing a production and giving up is how you handle the issues as they come up.

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