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
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
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
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
What an agency will allow and what policies it imposes on crews
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
"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,
When CBS wanted to film at CIA headquarters, it brought a fleet of
mobile homes and semi trailers carrying equipment, along with a
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
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
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.