A dirt road stretching to the horizon. Snow-capped peaks in the periphery. A bright, shiny truck or SUV kicking up dust as it tears down the road and into the future.
Such imagery is part of the lifeblood of American advertising, and it’s not a surprise that the vistas and scenery of the Eastern Sierra are consistently the filming locations for such advertising.
Nearly all of the local advertising productions that visit the Eastern Sierra do their filming on public lands under the stewardship of entities such as the Inyo National Forest, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service.
As a result, there is a permitting process in place for productions looking to film on public lands. In recent months, the timeline for hearing back about a permit application has been extended to 15 business days (3 weeks) and even longer for more complex applications.
At Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors, Chris Langley, Inyo County Film Commissioner, presented his mid-year filming report to the Supervisors.
“We’ve had a hard six months trying to figure out how to survive and reassure film people that it’s safe here, number 1, and that even though you can’t see the mountains, in fact they are there,” Langley explained.
His main focus was permitting.
“It’s a problem,” Langley said of the 15 business-day timelines, “because commercials are used to spending two weeks in pre-production, all the way to production and three weeks was a problem. Then we were informed that the leadership team of forest had recommended a month, or even 45 days [to complete the permitting process].”
“That would take probably most of the industry that uses the forest out of using it,” he continued.
Langley said that he’d had conversations with his counterpart in Mono County, Alicia Vennos, about the timeline change, adding that it would create a real problem in Mono County, where the majority of film production comes from commercials.
According to Langley, there are four job vacancies at the Forest Service that are all dedicated to the permit process. Three of those positions are fully funded, Langley explained, but remained unfilled.
Langley and Vennos met with representatives of the Forest Service to come up with realistic solutions that wouldn’t automatically preclude productions from filming in the region.
“Alicia and I tried to give a whole bunch of suggestions of how we could take over some of the paperwork or eliminate some of the paperwork and do more communication,” Langley said, “and they seemed actually grateful that we noticed that they had a problem.”
Langley and Vennos were informed that a decision related to their proposals would take months.
He related a personal example of how staffing shortages have affected production: a commercial production company, MJZ, scouted the area and wanted to film a commercial for GMC’s electric vehicles in Death Valley.
MJZ received a letter from Death Valley National Park representatives that explained that a 30-person crew in the park would require a degree of on-site traffic control at the location. The park’s current staffing level made expediting the application as it related to monitoring requirements impossible; processing the application to account for staff monitoring would require 30 days.
Conversely, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has recently eased or altered some of their production-related policies; crews, including talent, with fewer than 15 people can work on BLM land without a permit. Langley said during his presentation to the Supervisors that BLM had also reduced their permit application form from 8 pages to 3, a change that makes the process easier for all parties involved.
In addition to permitting, Langley said that production companies have expressed concern about high Covid-19 case rates locally, and have introduced protocols such as each crew member driving separately to the shoot and on-site testing to ensure everyone’s safety.
Langley acknowledged that “it bothers me that there are groups out there without permits that i might not know about but generally they come to me next.” He that there have been fewer film crews present than is normal for this time of year.
There are other factors at play that are simply out of the control of Langley. Wildfire smoke this past summer prevented crews from being able to shoot the mountains and landscape effectively. A company looking to film a Super Bowl commercial wanted to shoot in pine trees without any snow on them; given recent storms, that ask simply wasn’t possible, and the company opted to shoot elsewhere.
Supervisor Jennifer Roeser suggested a programmatic environmental assessment (EA), in which the proponent identifies a number of common filming locations and sets parameters for use. Roeser said that the designation allows for agencies to issue permits quickly rather than meticulously review each application and use.
The Sheet spoke with Alicia Vennos, Mono County Film Commissioner, about the permitting process and related issues. She said that the film commission is looking to take on part of the application and permit process from the Forest Service to ease the burden.
That would include reviewing applications, ensuring their quality, and talks with the production companies about their projects. In theory, once applications are properly vetted, all that would be required of the Forest Service is a glance-over and signature.
“Production companies often have so many questions, and really as the film commission and film office, that’s our job, we want to the be ones helping production companies figure that out,” Vennos explained.
The current turnaround time “would essentially eliminate a lot of filming here,” Vennos said, “We do 95% commercials and vehicle and brand name commercials don’t usually have that time. We would lose out as a location. The filming does bring a lot of economic viability to our communications.”
Inyo National Forest Public Affairs Officer Deb Schweitzer told The Sheet that filming on public lands is an “extremely popular activity because we have incredible scenery not that far form major filming centers and the demand is significant.”
“Our ability to staff at the level of demand is something that we’re really struggling to do,” she added.
While the Inyo recently hired a permit administrator for the Mammoth Lakes Ranger district, the forest has seen a number of applicants decline job offers. Schweitzer cited cost of living and housing availability as key factors in those decisions.
She noted that permit administrators deal with all manner of special use permits, including weddings and other events, which come with difficulties of their own.
“The permitting process does take time to work through,” Schweitzer said, “clearly, there are regulations and guidelines to manage, and it takes a while to work through requests to meet those guidelines.”
Schweitzer said that the level of staffing at the Inyo National Forest is the same as it was 10-20 years ago.