LETTING THE CAMERAS IN: Whether it's a documentary or a movie,opening your doors to a film crew can bring massive PR rewards. But asmore government agencies cooperate, how do you stay in control? JohnFrank reports

Even the most suave host can get a bit unsettled when unexpected

company drops in. So imagine how much more upsetting it can be for a

government agency, accustomed to daily routine, to suddenly have an army

of 150 people with a fleet of trucks, miles of cables, and acres of

other equipment suddenly appear at its doorstep.



Working with a film or television production team is exactly like

that.



Depending on the length of filming, routines can be disrupted for days,

weeks, or months. Workers may be moved from offices, and explosions or

other nifty film special effects can be set up, all of which make it

difficult to get day-to-day work done.



Despite the inconvenience, increasing numbers of federal, state, and

local governments and government agencies are agreeing to work with

Hollywood film and TV crews, spotting a valuable chance to help increase

public awareness of their work.



Even the secretive Central Intelligence Agency recently worked with CBS

on a new series called The Agency, which will air this fall. The CIA

began changing its attitude toward such projects about five years ago,

stung by negative press coverage and by films that always painted it as

the bad guys and home to demented or megalomaniac spies.



"We're proud of who we are and what we've done, and we want people to

know that," says Chase Brandon, film industry liaison at the CIA.



Movies that cast an agency like the CIA in a favorable light can help

with recruitment and with the agency's image when it comes time to visit

Capitol Hill for funding. Similarly, municipalities and states can pick

up valuable tourist exposure by being the locales for hit movies or TV

shows.



What's in it for the workers



Seeing a glamorized version of their workplace on TV and getting the

chance to be extras in a big-budget production can have a great effect

on worker morale. "It becomes a motivational tool," says Robert

Leonard.



Now SVP at Dan Klores Associates, Leonard previously handled PR for the

New York City Fire Department and its paramedics, working closely with

the hit TV series NYPD Blue, which films in New York.



Leonard notes that working with NYPD Blue, and now NBC's Third Watch (a

show about New York policemen, firefighters, and paramedics) has aided

recruitment efforts, as well as boosted department morale. Actors from

Third Watch even volunteered to do recruitment PSAs for the city. "The

payback value to employees is huge," Leonard says. He expects to see

more and more government agencies working with Hollywood.



The benefits might be valuable, but you still need to retain

control.



What an agency will allow and what policies it imposes on crews

varies.



The US Supreme Court, for example has an established policy that doesn't

allow filming inside the building. Some exceptions have been made for

documentary film crews, but generally any filming has to be done outside

the courthouse. Supreme Court personnel will review scripts when asked

to ensure historical accuracy for movies dealing with the court in a

bygone era, however.



The FBI has a history of working with Hollywood that dates back to J.

Edgar Hoover. Today, the agency remains open to working with just about

anyone who approaches it for help, says Rex Tomb, who heads what was

once called the FBI's special productions office, but now bears the

imposing acronym FBIMSU. "We try to cooperate where we can. It's better

to be on the train than sitting in the station, watching it go by," says

Chapman.



"We see ourselves as a resource for everybody." The bureau has even

answered questions for producers of The X-Files, a TV show that doesn't

always cast the FBI in the best light. "It would have to be really bad"

for the bureau not to cooperate, Chapman says. "We recognize that there

has got to be some literary license. If you expect films to be 100%

literal, you're going to be disappointed."



Still, while the FBI cooperates with most film requests, "we're not

going to give unlimited access to this building," Chapman notes. When

film crews ask to shoot at FBI headquarters in Washington, "we have to

limit them to fairly public areas," he says. The CIA also restricts

access. "You can't go to the bathroom here unattended," says Brandon,

only half-joking.



When CBS wanted to film at CIA headquarters, it brought a fleet of

mobile homes and semi trailers carrying equipment, along with a

150-person crew.



Filming was done on weekends with CIA security bringing in extra people

to stay with crew personnel. About 50 CIA personnel also came in to play

extras.



It's a two-way street



When asked for help, the CIA "certainly has to see the script," Chapman

says. The agency will cooperate "if they're doing something that is well

presented, balanced, and is a realistic portrayal," says Chapman, a

veteran of 25 years of covert CIA operations. "It would be unrealistic

for us to offer our support to something that casts us as some sort of

ugly, subversive entity."



The agency agreed to work with CBS after Brandon spent a day with the

principal writer of the new show. "It was clear that he had come here

and paid attention, and it was equally clear that he had done a lot of

research about the agency," Brandon recalls. It became obvious that the

new show would cast the agency in a favorable light. "That's the kind of

message we like to see go out," he says.



Like other agencies, the CIA hopes to generate positive spin from any

film projects it works with.



That was the goal of New York City paramedics when NYPD Blue started

filming there, relates Leonard. Paramedics had a run of bad press in the

late 1980s, and morale was low. So when Leonard, a former paramedic

himself, heard that NYPD Blue was planning to rent an ambulance for a

scene, he contacted the production crew and offered to supply an

ambulance and crew of real paramedics.



Through a long day of filming, the paramedics showed crew members how

they would do certain procedures, and they built a rapport with actors

including star Dennis Franz, Leonard recalls. That first cooperative

venture led to use of other paramedics and off-duty policemen in

subsequent episodes of the long-running show.



Leonard asked to see scripts, and he made suggestions about how

paramedics and police officers would handle certain situations or

procedures in real life. When making such suggestions, "you have to

explain your position.



You can't just say no to something, so you have to be creative," Leonard

says. He advises staying on the set to be able to have input. "A lot of

it is relationship building," he says.



Those relationships can bear PR fruit. The CIA's Brandon has been

spending a lot of time with Hollywood heavyweight Ben Affleck, preparing

him for an upcoming role as a CIA operative in a new movie based on a

Tom Clancy novel. Brandon was in Hawaii with the actor for the premiere

of his latest movie Pearl Harbor. Affleck attended a press conference

for the movie wearing a CIA baseball cap, and he spoke glowingly of his

prep work with the agency. It'd be impossible for the agency to buy that

kind of positive exposure, says Brandon.



"Is there resistance in government? Absolutely, but they need to get

beyond that," Brandon adds. Done right, the value of a few million

people getting a favorable impression of your organizations far

outweighs the inconvenience and trouble of putting up with a film

crew.



BEFORE YOU SAY YES ...



- Check the script. While no one wants to use the term "creative

control," PR people do advise taking a look at a project's script and

suggesting changes to things that appear inaccurate or derogatory to the

governmental body involved. "You want to have editorial control at a

certain level," says Leonard.



- Get everything in writing. "Movie companies are control freaks; they

have the attitude that they're going to use our streets as a back lot,"

says Ron Verkuilen, managing director of the Illinois Film Office, a

state agency that works to encourage filming in Illinois. Where crews

can go and for how long they can be there should be clearly spelled out

in writing ahead of any filming. Other specifics of their activities

also need to be clearly defined.



- Keep an eye on what's going on. When the CIA has a film crew at its

Virginia headquarters, it assigns uniformed security personnel to stay

with each member of a crew.



- Don't be afraid to say no. Film demands can sometimes be truly

outrageous. When the sequel to The Fugitive was filming in Chicago

several years ago, for example, the production crew wanted to close busy

Lake Shore Drive for three weeks so it could crash a plane into Lake

Michigan. "There are things that just can't be done," says Verkuilen.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.