For a fiction feature film: How identifiable do people on the street (not in the cast) have to be to require a signed release?

Answer by Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer: 

Over the years I have gotten more questions about releases than almost any other type of contract. Often among student filmmakers or first-time independent producers the release becomes one of the only documents on set. So in responding to questions about releases first I like to discuss how to define a release, second, where the legal basis for a release comes from, and third, I will comment on when a release of some kind is usually used.

At the most basic level all contracts are the same. A contract is an agreement between two parties where both want something out of the relationship. There is the concept of “consideration”, meaning both sides are getting something of value out of the arrangement. Generally courts hold there must be consideration on both sides to enforce an agreement. 

So what is the releasing party getting out of the release? Theoretically, the party signing the release is getting the privilege of being in a film or TV show as some kind of background player. But to the surprise of some producers not everyone wants to appear in a movie or television show. So that is where the legal basis for releases begins. 

The legal requirement for releases comes from a number of different laws. Most basically is the right of privacy. The right of privacy may be codified, as it is in California or New York, or it may be a common law principle. California Civil Code, Section 3344 addresses the rights of privacy and publicity in commercial film and television productions in California.

The right of privacy, as it relates to film and television, states that a person has the right to not have their name, voice or likeness used commercially. In addition to the right of privacy, the torts of defamation and false light are both applicable. When someone is recorded there may be certain facts implied by the production. For example, if a person was filmed outside of a demonstration, that might imply he or she was part of the protest. Finally, the right of publicity disallows use of someone’s name or likeness as an endorsement or ad without consent.

So when is a release required? States like California and New York have made it fairly clear that for commercial film and television productions, a person cannot appear recognizably without prior consent. Other states rely on common law standards, so the laws will vary by state and use. But in general, it is by far the standard that everyone appearing recognizably in a feature film should have signed a release or otherwise clearly expressed consent to being recorded. 

The definition of terms like “commercial” and “recognizable” are unfortunately subject to dispute, and even in states with well-defined Codes, the application to any particular production is difficult. But producers hoping to get their project commercially distributed, and therefore requiring E&O insurance, should error on the side of more documentation and try to get signed releases from just about anyone possible.

As an entertainment law firm, our firm offers a number of packages that can help make it affordable to get the contract and legal help needed on any size of film or television production. Feel free to contact BLAKE & WANG P.A. ( about how we can help make sure your project has the legal documentation required by distributors and E&O insurance companies.