Film Permits in the Spotlight

Morgan McGivern

The filming permits issued by East Hampton Town to producers, filmmakers, and still photographers seeking to use local sites for TV shows, movies, and ads are expected to take center stage before the town board in the coming days of this new year.

Filming on private property, either outside or in, would for the first time require a permit, according to proposed changes to the existing law. Currently, permits are needed only when filming is to take place in public places.

That loophole has had a couple of turns in the spotlight involving two cable TV shows. “The Affair,” a Showtime drama series set in Montauk that premiered in 2014, used a house in Amagansett’s Beach Hampton neighborhood as a home base for some of its characters. Filming there into the night, with trucks and lights, set off complaints from neighborhood residents and prompted the town board to call in the producers. With a round of filming for the show’s second season anticipated, and hoping to keep using the same house, they worked with the town to negotiate a compromise. The show, which won a Golden Globe for Best Television Series, launched a third season in November.

Last summer, town officials turned down a request for a filming permit for “Summer House,” a Bravo reality show that premieres later this month. But the producers, who have publicized the show as chronicling 20-somethings partying at a share house in Montauk (the actual house was on Napeague), went about the hamlet on their own, seeking permission to film from shopkeepers and owners of private property.

With the Montauk Chamber of Commerce and others decrying the show’s depiction of the hamlet as a wild summer playground full of debauchery, they got a number of cold shoulders, and locals discussed ways to sabotage the filming that did take place.

But the experience stung. Sitting in at a Dec. 21 town board meeting where revisions to the film-permit regulations were discussed, Laraine Creegan, the Montauk chamber’s executive director, asked the board, “Do you take into consideration what is being filmed?”

“As much as we might have a personal opinion,” Supervisor Larry Cantwell told her, “we do not have the constitutional authority to regulate the content.” The “lawful concerns” that the town may assess, he said, are those related to public safety, such as traffic, or to health. “Governments do not regulate freedom of speech.”

At present, applications for film permits are evaluated by the same committee that assesses requests for mass-gathering permits. The committee includes town board members, police, a fire marshal, and so on. Approved permits are issued by the town clerk. Shoots with a cast and crew of five or fewer are exempt from the permit process.