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Moving Pictures

Looking to get international movies made here? Call Richmond's Eliot Norman.


An immigration lawyer since 1986, Norman regularly advises information-technology companies and multinational corporations on business immigration. And in the past two years, he has taken on another client: foreign film crews who need visas to work in America.

So far, Norman has a good track record. Over the course of three months in 2000, he worked to bring 14 people to Richmond — designers, technicians and other crew members — to film portions of the movie "Hannibal." He also secured visas for 53 members of a BBC production on assignment in Arizona.

Now, Norman's working to pave the way for a crew from Thailand who want to shoot a film in New York. He's doing something similar for the London-based Bauer Martinez Studios, which is producing the Springer flick, "Citizen Jury." In July, several scenes will be shot in Florida. Norman, along with his team of four other attorneys, is working to secure visas for a dozen members of the crew — citizens of Germany, Spain, France and the United Kingdom.

Norman landed the Springer deal recently, when he attended the Cannes Film Festival and met several producers eager to film in the States. Among them were representatives of Bauer Martinez Studios, who were there to introduce the yet-to-be-shot film to potential international distributors.

Like many who flood Cannes for the flashy festival, Norman has a flair for self-promotion. If his assistant hasn't told you already, he will: He's a pianist and he's fluent in French.

A talent for promotion is probably a good thing, because there seems to be increasing business for attorneys like Norman — and increasing competition.

A growing number of films, such as "Chocolat," are the result of collaborations between studios from different countries. So the shooting locale changes all the time. That means more people are traveling from one country to another. There are specific regulations for issuing visas to foreign artists, technical staff, models, musicians and athletes, and the people who accompany them.

For years, the standard for admitting such aliens depended on the artist's status in his or her field. The goal was to discourage producers from inundating the labor market with people of no special distinction when there was a huge resource of American talent who could do the work.

But labor groups in the United States thought the definition of prominence was vague and widely ignored, and they moved to force a tougher standard for artistic merit. Principally, they wanted Congress to grant them peer review in the entry process. In April 1992, the groups were granted a mandatory consultation requirement.

Under the current law, a producer who wants to bring, say, a foreign actor or cinematographer into the country must submit the person's name to the relevant union, be it the Screen Actor's Guild or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The union then gives an opinion on the applicant's merits. The application, along with the union opinion, is then sent to INS for a final decision.

The process isn't easy. That's where lawyers like Norman come in.

In the half-dozen cases Norman has handled on behalf of TV and film crews, unions such as IATSE have frequently objected to granting of visas. When Norman appeals to the INS, he usually tells them that it's important to move the same crews around to preserve the continuity of the production. So far, the INS has agreed.

So when Jerry Springer hits the screen in 2003 as the fictional producer of a courtroom reality-TV series that tries capital-punishment cases, we can thank Norman for the finished product. Whether or not he wants it. S

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