UPDATE: On July 6, a DC Superior Court judge denied an “emergency temporary restraining order” to stop cops from threatening people taking photos of Wonder Woman filming around town. But it wasn’t a defeat, because the cops were sufficiently spooked to knock it off. Says SPJ attorney Mark Bailen, who was there: “It is clear from the hearing today, which was attended by a police department representative, that there is no legal basis for the police to prevent the public from taking photographs in a public place where there is no risk or threat to public safety.” So this is how you win in court these days.
The next Wonder Woman movie is filming in Washington, DC. And there’s already a new super-villain.
It’s the production crew.
Since mid-June, the Wonder Woman sequel has been shooting around the nation’s capitol. It’s called Wonder Woman 1984 because, uh, it’s set in 1984. That means the crew is building elaborate sets that mimic what existed in DC three decades ago, and they’re staging elaborate scenes with stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.
But if you try to take pictures of that, the crew has hired cops to stop you.
That’s right, Hollywood doesn’t want you taking pictures from a public street of something happening on a public street.
That’s wrong, of course. It’s legal to take pictures of public property from public property. That’s because of something called the U.S. Constitution – you know, the document that superheroes like Wonder Woman defend with such righteous violence.
So now there’s a lawsuit.
It was filed in federal court yesterday (read it here) on behalf of a DC attorney named J.P. Szymkowicz. But it never would’ve happened if U2 wasn’t in concert.
Two Sunday mornings ago, Szymkowicz (pronounced SIM-co-witz) was on his way to the Capital One Arena, where the city’s NHL and NBA teams play. He was picking up tickets for the first of two U2 shows. (He went to both. I’ll explain why in a moment.)
“Normally, I’d never be downtown by the mall at 8:30 in the morning,” he says. “But because I was down there getting my wristband, I saw it.”
On Pennsylvania Avenue right in front of the National Archives, Szymkowicz noticed “two giant cranes meeting in a V above the ground.”
The production crew was setting up a key shot of Wonder Woman flying her invisible plane. Gal Gadot was going to drop from the cranes to simulate her flight.
But Szymkowicz didn’t see Gadot. He was too early.
“They were actually shooting the background scene,” he says. “They had fire, smoke, and everything set up.”
As he shot photos of the cranes, two production assistants rushed him. One told him, “Man, you can’t film here.” When he asked why, one of the PAs said, “Because we own this street. We bought it.”
Both PAs put their hands in front of Szymkowicz’s phone. Then they summoned a DC police car. A cop emerged and warned, “They asked you not to take pictures.”
Szymkowicz considered ignoring the cop and maybe getting illegally arrested. That’s every attorney’s (and journalist’s) dream. Instead, he backed down.
It’s hard to say which Szymkowicz loves more: The law or U2. He’s seen the band 25 times since 1985. While he was prepared to spend a day in jail to defend the Constitution, he also says, “I really wanted to see U2.”
So Szymkowicz went home and told his dad – who’s also an attorney. Together, they headed back to Pennsylvania Avenue. This time, the two PAs were overwhelmed by spectators holding aloft their phones.
Szymkowicz shot video of one PA yelling, “Hey guys, you’re ruining our movie! I’ve asked you six times! How would you feel if I came to your office with a camera?”
Of course, most people’s offices aren’t on the most public street in America – the one where presidents walk down when they get inaugurated.
But that’s not the best part: This all happened right in front of the National Archives Building, where the original copy of the U.S. Constitution is kept.
This is a sequel for me.
Seven years to the day that Szymkowicz was hassled on Pennsylvania Avenue, I organized a protest for the same illegal thing in Fort Lauderdale.
The movie was called Rock of Ages. It starred Tom Cruise (creepily above), Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Alec Baldwin. If you never heard of it, that’s because it really sucked. But several major scenes were filmed on location at a downtown Lauderdale nightclub.
The production crew strong-armed the city to post signs throughout downtown that read…
Photography of this area is prohibited. Strictly enforced…violators subjet to arrest.
Yes, the Rock of Ages assholes tried to ban all photography on public streets. Yes, they misspelled “subject.” And yes, it was theoretically illegal to take a photo of the sign that declared photography was illegal.
So I organized the Picture Perfect Protest, recruiting 20 brave citizens to flout this illegal edict by taking photos and daring the cops to arrest us. Of course, they didn’t.
We took the photo ban to court and won attorney’s fees and $500. (It was about the principle, not the money. Although looking back, I should’ve made it about the money.)
Somehow, Szymkowicz learned about this while Googling after his own confrontation – maybe he used the search terms “Hollywood thinks it’s liberal but regularly acts like Russia and China.” I didn’t think to ask him.
Anyway, I pledged to help Szymkowicz publicize his lawsuit. I’m asking journalism organizations to file amicus briefs, and I’ll contact better journalists than me to cover this stupid story.
Why go so crazy about something so trivial? Because if I’ve learned anything in my 29 years as a pro journalist, it’s this…
The best way to teach disinterested citizens about their Constitutional rights is through their entertainment. They may be apathetic about, or overwhelmed by, national politics. But don’t mess with their blockbuster movies.
In a way, this is a sequel for Szymkowicz, too.
In 2001, he sued the Washington Redskins because the NFL team refused to let ticket-buying fans walk to the stadium.
You read that right. The Redskins demanded fans pay $25 to park in lots that the team owned. If you parked anywhere else and walked up to the stadium – on public sidewalks with your ticket in hand – you weren’t allowed in.
Szymkowicz sued and won. It took three years of ridiculous Redskins-backed appeals, but he prevailed. So this isn’t a guy who tolerates stupid shit from powerful people.
Why can’t Wonder Woman be more like Bono?
Attorneys love ironies, and Szymkowicz loves U2, so he says…
When U2 came out, they didn’t say, “No pictures.” You can even watch their concerts on YouTube. You can watch the show I went to – really. I don’t know if they actively encourage that, but they don’t issue take-down notices, either. They don’t have that attitude.
Why can’t Hollywood be just a little more rock and roll?
Let’s make ’em. If you’ve been hassled by TV or movie crews, tell me. If need be, I’ll hire you a bulldog lawyer like Szymkowicz.
Meanwhile, Szymkowicz tells me Wonder Woman is staging one of its biggest shoots this weekend.
“They have begun the shutdown of probably 20 blocks in Georgetown,” he says. “I’ve lived here all my life and have never seen anything like it.”
Wonder what else we’ll see.