Ever wonder why, in major summer blockbusters, DC tends look suspiciously like Baltimore, Philadelphia, or even Toronto? Well, that’s because even though filmmakers love to set movies in DC, they don’t really like to film here. Not for lack of scenery! We’ve got monuments, museums, architecture, nightlife… But we’ve also got multiple local governments and confusing regulations that can make filming in the DMV a pain in the you-know-what. Maryland, DC, and Virginia each have different rules for commercial filming, and then those regulations can even vary by County. Then you get the Park Service in on it… So I figured I’d break it down by region, and note any exceptions to the rules. Starting with the District itself…
The DC government handles all film permitting in public areas in the District of Columbia. For those not from here, the DC government is NOT the Federal government, but rather the local government headed by the Mayor and City Council. So don’t email the White House all annoyed that you can’t get a film permit, they can’t help you out.
All commercial filming and photography including documentaries, films, and PSAs, that are filming in DC public spaces are required to apply for a permit from the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment. The fees depend on the size of crew and cast, production parking, and special requests like road closures. You have to submit your permit three full business days ahead of when you’re requesting filming, or five full business days ahead if you’re also requesting parking.
The most cinematic parts of DC are the Monuments and the Capitol, right? So if you get your DC film permit you’re all set to film there, right? Nope! The Monuments are national parkland, so you have to apply for a permit from The National Park Service. And to film at the Capitol, you have to apply through the Capitol Police. Did you want to film at a school or public park? Then head over to DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation and fill out an application there.
Ok, so Maryland’s gotta be simpler than that, right? Well, kinda? Maryland as a whole does not require a permit to film, but some parts of Maryland do, including Baltimore County, Montgomery County, the City of Baltimore, and the City of Annapolis. MLP is located in Montgomery County, and that’s where we do quite a bit of our filming. Luckily Montgomery County is pretty flexible! You only need to request a permit if your production will close or block public rights of way, like sidewalks and streets. If that’s the case, fill out an application ASAP, as the process can take a few weeks. If you’re going to film a large or complex production on private property, the County asks that you inform them – just in case people call the police about suspicious activity. Don’t want your production interrupted by squad cars!
Like Maryland, Virginia does not require a statewide permit to film, but the Virginia Film Office does ask that you contact them ahead of production to alert them. But! And here’s where it gets complicated – there are a bunch of counties right outside DC, as well as a couple of independent cities like Fairfax, Alexandria, and Lynchburg, and each of them have different rules for filming. Alexandria, for example, requires you to submit your application and $30 application fee six days ahead of production. Then you have to pay $100 for a film permit, and must submit a certificate of insurance. Loudoun County, on the other hand, doesn’t require a permit at all.
There are a few other things to keep in mind when filming in the DMV. First, there are a lot of government buildings around the area. The Office of Homeland Security has clarified that you do have the right to film the exterior of federal buildings, but you might still get grief from security guards. The ACLU even recommends printing out a copy of the court ruling to keep with you, just in case security tries to make you stop. Can’t hurt, right? The second little quirk about filming in DC is the airspace restrictions. In DC, there is a no-fly zone around the Capitol and the White House that now extends to drones, too. You cannot film using a quadcopter for a 15-mile radius around DC, or within the no-fly zones surrounding our airports. The FAA briefly upped that radius to 30 miles, but as February relented and brought it back to its original size. In order to fly your drone legally, it cannot go higher than 400 feet and it must be registered with the FAA. If you’re going to be flying within 5 miles of an airport, you have to notify the control tower before you launch.
So there you have it. A quick run through of all the hoops and hurdles you have to go through before filming in the DMV. But at the end of the day when you get that shot of sunrise over the Monuments, you know all the hassle has been worth it. Interested in filming in the DMV and need a crew? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to learn more about your project!