We recently released a podcast episode where we spoke to Gary Kout, one of the producers of the popular Netflix documentary series Flint Town.
The series was shot over a two-year period and involved filmmakers embedding themselves with police in Flint, Michigan, to reveal a department grappling with volatile issues in untenable conditions.
After recording the episode we followed up with Gary and we’d love to share with you what he had to say about the sometimes tricky or difficult task of getting the signed personal release.
Question: How Did You Deal With Getting Releases For Your Netflix Doc-series, Flint Town?
What We Didn’t Do To Get Releases
We handled the release issue in multiple ways, but what we didn’t do was:
- We didn’t have the directors and camerapeople carry around releases and have people sign them. That would have broken the flow of the process and delayed the officer from getting to the next call.
- Nor did we have someone following along right behind to get releases. With up to 6 cameras out there at a time, that would have been too resource heavy, perhaps a little dangerous considering the areas, the time of day, and the people we were encountering. Plus who, after just getting some heat from the cops, is going to sign a release!
What We Did To Get Releases
Instead, we did any or all of the following:
- When possible, which was most of the time, the cameraperson was to make it obvious there was a camera there filming and, if appropriate, have the officer make a brief comment to the person about a documentary being made. Or if asked directly, the person behind the camera (remember, they were usually running solo) would say it was a documentary and ask if it was okay to film. In either case we would now have on-camera disclosure if not even consent.
- Whether the above happened or not, if we either knew who the person was, where they lived, or could pull the info from the public arrest record, we would return later with a release. I did that myself in a number of cases, such as at the liquor store (that was for a location release, specifically).
- During post-production (or earlier if we felt time was of the essence), we showed all the non-released clips that we wanted to use to our legal team and had them make a determination if we were at risk or not. There certainly were clips that they suggested we not use.
- We added the disclaimer at the end of each episode to the effect that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
- Purchased a good Errors and Omissions policy!
The one thing to keep in mind is that if someone is presented with a release and won’t sign it, you’re pretty much dead in the water.
But if they don’t sign it at least not then and there, you can always try later when the heat is off, or in the case of a non-commercial, journalism style documentary, there is leeway and precedent in the laws for fair use.
Seek Legal Advice
The area of personal or individual release can be a very confusing issue and it is always better to seek legal advice where there is uncertainty.
Gary has kindly shared his experience and we hope that this helps give you some ideas and options for when you’re shooting your documentary film. However, this does not constitute legal advice and for clarification on any and all legal issues you should seek professional legal counsel.