Location Scouting for Film Shoots – what you should know
The right locations can be a real boost for your film, but finding and securing those locations has the potential to be a real drain. However, it doesn’t have to be. Let’s take a look at the process from start to finish.
Start With The Script
Every creative aspect of your film should start with your script. Read that script, re-read it, then read it again; know intimately the story you are telling. From your script, you should be able to put together a comprehensive list of all needed locations.
This can be the dreaming stage of the process. Fill in your location list with your absolute dream locations. This will help to define the top of your “expectation scale.” However, be prepared to reign it in. All productions have to be realistic — very few films (no matter how large their budget) have the opportunity to shoot at all of their dream locations. Pick a few that you can aim for, then work down your list identifying places you can compromise.
It’s A Great Big World
Now that you know what locations you need, make some key decisions about where in the world your production should actually be shot. The basic factors to keep in mind are:
- Cost | The plain truth is that some places in the world are cheaper to work in than others. Look for a locality that encourages film production and offers financial/tax incentives.
- Available Resources | You are going to need to tap into local resources in the area that you are filming. Make sure to a pick a spot that has good access to things like available crew, accessible gear / rental stores, nearby airport, and a supportive community that would be happy to share space & possibly show up as extras.
- Workable Properties | Notice that this item was not listed first. It’s the one that we want to put first, but don’t give in to that temptation. Remember that if you can’t afford it and the resources are limited then it doesn’t matter how perfect it looks, filming there will suck. However, the locality you choose should contain a big chunk of your needed venues.
- Should We Build It? | Filming in a controlled environment on a staged set has huge advantages because you can be in charge of all of the variables. It’s not always the best option, but you should always at least consider it.
Time to Scout!
Once you’ve selected a general region (i.e. a state, city, or country) look around and see what that area really has to offer. If you don’t live there, then go visit. Remember when you’re scouting locations to take detailed notes, lots of pictures, and even video footage. Also ask as many questions as you can think of.
Hire a location scout. This should be someone who knows the area, can recommend properties, and make introductions.
Use a service like SetScouter. This is especially helpful for finding and securing private properties. Local & state film offices should also be a good resource. This varies A LOT based on where you are and how active their community is in the film industry.
Let’s Make A Deal
When you have a location that you’d like to use it’s up to you to make the ask… in the right way. Make sure you find the person with the authority to actually grant you access to the space and sign a location agreement. If the space is privately owned, it could be as simple as approaching the property owner. However, if it is owned by a business, nonprofit, or other organization you will probably need to start with the property manager and then seek final approval from their leadership or board. A similar process will probably apply if you are trying to film on public property, except you may need to seek additional permits or insurance beyond a standard location agreement.
When presenting your location request to a property owner/manager, be honest about what you really need and how you would like to use the space. Be clear about the number of people you would be bringing in, how much equipment would be included, and how long you would actually need the space. Filmmaking is an invasive activity and the property owner should have a clear understanding of what they are agreeing to. Don’t make assumptions and talk through everything possible. There is no such thing as over-communication when it comes to film locations.
PRO TIP: To save money or get access to a hard to secure space, consider reducing the amount of time that you need the space and/or limiting the number of people you bring on location. The less you are asking for the easier it will be to secure a location.
Do The Paperwork
Once you strike a deal, get it in writing. Your production should provide each location with a written location agreement. This should be sent to them before shooting begins so that they have enough time to review, sign, and return it to you. You should NEVER begin filming at a location without a signed location agreement.
When writing up your location agreements, be clear about how you are really going to use the property. Spell out everything that was discussed or verbally agreed to. Write the agreement as if the whole thing is going to go badly… basically, prepare for the worst.
It is always wise to have an attorney write your location agreements since they are legal documents. However, if that is beyond your budget, check out our Location Release Agreement Template.
Hold Up Your End Of The Deal
Congratulations! Through strategic planning, skillful negotiation, and precise deal-writing you’ve secured locations that are going to make your film look amazing! Now all that’s left to do is actually stick to your location agreements. This may seem like a given, but trust me, in the stress and chaos of production it is easy to forget promises, damage property, and overstep your bounds.
First and foremost make sure that your production has a Locations Manager. Someone whose sole job is the care/keeping of locations and guiding how the production interacts those locations. Among a myriad of others job duties, the Locations Manager should…
- Take pictures of everything at every location before any other work is done.
- Protect anything that is fragile, valuable, or heavily used. For example, always protect the floors, they are going to be walked on and could easily be damaged.
- Make sure parking, restrooms, trash cans, craft services, and staging/waiting areas are available, clearly marked, and well maintained.
- Secure, mark, and monitor areas on location that are specifically off limits.
- Routinely scan the entire location looking for damages, safety hazards, or violations of the location agreement. Stepping in to correct issues as they arise.
- Make sure an emergency/safety plan is in place and posted at each location.
- Graciously communicate with property owners/managers as things change or if damages or issues arise.
- Be the last person to leave any location, assuring that everything was left in the condition that it was found in.
With intentional effort, your production should be able to have a positive experience at every location you use. And when things do get messed up remember to start with the simple words: “I am sorry…”
Special thanks to Alex Kolodkin from SetScouter for sharing his location insights & expertise with Leslie Ruiz for this blog post.