Regulators Are Starting to Prosecute for Illegal Drone Use, PGA Panelists Warn

Discussing safety in a "post-Sarah Jones world" at a Produced By panel, one exec said convicted filmmakers "deserved it."
Carolyn Giardina

Drones with cameras mounted to them “are used regularly without proper insurance — it's illegal and [regulators] are starting to prosecute people,” Hub Entertainment Insurance’s managing director Christie Mattull warned Sunday at the PGA's Produced By Conference, held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City.

“Drones are highly regulated and you have to make sure you have FAA permission, insurance," added Legendary Entertainment’s vp production safety Jim Economos. "There shouldn’t be any cheap drone operators. You need three people, and insurance starts at $5,000 a day.

“We are in a post-Sarah Jones world,” he reminded the audience, emphasizing that safety starts with communication, as crews need to feel empowered to say something if there’s a concern and producers need to feel empowered to say "no" when required.

Speaking of Jones, the 27-year-old camera assistant who died in 2013 after being struck by a train during production on Midnight Rider, Economos said, "[The production] didn’t have permission to be there. That’s criminal trespass, and in the commission of that, someone died.

“Three people were convicted and one went to prison, and they deserved it. A lot of people thought they deserved more,” he asserted, referring to director Randall Miller, who served a jail term, and executive producer Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz, who received probation and were fined. “That’s what you get when you cut the corners and and you try to steal a shot.

“Sarah Jones’ tragic death has empowered crews to ask questions," Economos continued. "I’ve encouraged that for years. If you see something, say something. … Remember, if anything happens, you are on the hook. We’ll say ‘no’ if something changes on the day of the shoot."

R. Decker Watson, Jr., executive producer on Discovery's Deadliest Catch, emphasized that the reality series set aboard Alaskan fishing boats has extensive crew safety training, coordinating with the Coast Guard.

“Twice a year they jump into the ering Sea, they jump into lifeboats, they swim," said Watson. "We use immersion suits [which he likened to a giant "Gumby” suit] that allow you to survive in the [frigid] water."

He added: “Commercial fishing is regulated, but in the beginning [Deadliest Catch is currently in season 12] it was the Wild West and [fisherman] looked at us like we were geeks for wearing life jackets.”

Admitting that he witnessed a tragic on-location death early in his career, Watson emphasized that he hasn't forgotten it and is constantly re-evaluating safety measures.

“I empower everyone to come and tell us what we can do better, or if they feel unsafe," he said. "It’s important to foster an environment were people feel comfortable bringing [safety issues] to you. Every year we have learned things that have saved our lives.”

During the session, moderator Mark Shelton — a producer, director and stuntman — outlined production safety requirements.

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