Filmmakers Get an Easier Ride Navigating Through L.A. River Bureaucracy

Scene from 'Grease' (1978)

It's no secret that the most challenging aspect of working along the Los Angeles River is making sense of its many jurisdictions. Depending on what specific spot you're at on the river, you may be talking to wildly different agencies. As this scoping document for the Los Angeles River Masterplan reveals, the river is overseen by cities, 14 agencies, not to mention public utilities and companies. Even the smallest of requests can be a major headache, as Alex Ventura of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council points out in a previous post. It seems, however, that there is one constituent base along the Los Angeles River that is getting an easier ride than most: filmmakers.

"Film L.A. is a non-profit, founded in 1995 by city and county of L.A. when it decided it wanted to cut the red tape and bureaucracy of filmmaking in Los Angeles," says Philip Sokoloski, Vice President of Integrated Communications at the agency. It acts as a one-stop shop for permitting filmmaking throughout Los Angeles and Santa Monica. "We're a central point of contact for filmmakers. We interface with various departments and agencies that need to be contacted about filming," says Sokoloski.

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Indeed, Film L.A.'s efficiency is impressive. Their system is streamlined. Everything begins online, where a step-by-step guide that first walks you through city and county jurisdictions. After choosing your location, it encourages you to give Film L.A. a call to sit down and discuss the specifics of your shoot with their production planning team, who can save requesters some time and money by sharing their stored knowledge of permit requirements. With the necessary information on hand, the site reminds you to procure the necessary type of insurance, and then leads you to their Online Permit System, which the non-profit developed itself.

From there, applicants can keep track of their permit request approvals online. "The system creates a record of your permit process. It's also used by our partners in the Los Angeles Police Department, who can sign on from any web browser. Film L.A. has also provided them with iPads to approve requests," says Sokoloski. The nature of the permitting process also gives the fire departments advanced notice of filming. They're required to do a spot-check of the premises whenever filming occurs.

Scene from 'Point Blank' (1967)
Scene from 'Point Blank' (1967)

Aside from the online system, the request will be assigned to a permit coordinator, who becomes the sole contact person for the applicant. The coordinator will fill in the details of additional permits or requirements needed to proceed with your case. According to Sokoloski, the coordinator is dedicated to your case, so much so that he'll help you account for modifications in permits, and even resolving issues arising from filming in the community. The coordinator is available 24 hours a day once your process has begun. Film L.A. employs about ten of these permit coordinators. About 30 additional people are also on the field daily to make sure permits are processed, and communities are notified of any filming that would occur in their neighborhoods.

How much time do you need to get all of this done? Getting permits for filming in the Los Angeles River can take as little as 72 hours, according to Sokoloski. "Filming on the Los Angeles River gets complicated rather quickly, but we exist to make it easier." The turnaround time is unsurprisingly fast, given that in filmmaking, timing is everything.

Film L.A. also manages to be self-sustaining. A majority of its funding comes from the permit coordination fees and community relations services it provides to production companies. It seems Film L.A. knows that when it comes to business, there are those who won't hesitate to pay for good service.

The non-profit's successful model now begs that question: can Los Angeles give itself the same opportunity when it comes to increasing access on the river?

A cursory look at the Los Angeles River Revitalization Masterplan indicates that there were plans to make working on the Los Angeles River easier by establishing a Los Angeles River Authority, which would "serve as the principal entity with authority and responsibility for River reconstruction, right-of-way management and maintenance, assuming responsibilities for public liability, permitting, and land development." Where are we on building that agency now?


Check out a montage of films shot in the L.A. River:


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