RABAT: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett spent months filming “Babel” in southern Morocco, a location so remote that a helicopter and team of paramedics had to stand by in case of a medical emergency.
For “Blood Diamond”, Leonardo DiCaprio dodged stunt bombs and fake bullets in Mozambique, a country wracked by civil war for almost two decades. In “Little Miss Sunshine”, child actress Abigail Breslin had to jump into a moving van.
It is enough to make a film insurer break out in a cold sweat.
Yet calculating the cost of accidents, lost footage or shutting down a production because of foul weather or the risk of terrorism is routine for Aon/Albert G. Ruben, the world’s leading insurance broker for the film industry.
Insurance brokers, like the Boy Scouts, must be prepared for anything.
“It’s literally a 24/7 business,” said Brian Kingman, co-managing director of Aon/AGR’s Los Angeles office. “We get called on the weekend, at night, on the set. We have to be ready for whatever at the drop of a hat.”
Aon/AGR handled all five of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture: “Babel,” “Letters From Iwo Jima”, “The Queen”, “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine”. The company also arranged insurance for 21 other films nominated for Oscars this year, including “The Pursuit of Happyness”, “United 93” and “Notes on a Scandal”.
Aon/AGR acts as a middleman, hooking up film producers with insurers such as Chubb Corporation, which then hand off some of their risks to reinsurers such as Swiss Re. The late Al Ruben founded the business, which started out as a life insurance agency before evolving into a film-insurance agency in 1959 thanks to his first major client, United Artists.
Kingman said the company handled about $250 million (Rs1,106 crore) in insurance premiums last year for films and television. Aon/AGR receives commissions from insurers ranging from 5% to 20%, he said, although some larger clients pay a fee based on the extent of their coverage.
The hazards of moviemaking only become public when a star such as Nicole Kidman gets involved in a minor car crash on a Los Angeles set or DiCaprio is flown by helicopter from Mozambique to South Africa for medical tests after injuring his knee filming a running scene.
Experts like Chris Palmer, director of risk control for Aon/AGR, are paid to worry about potential problems on sets from New York to Tokyo. And it is not just action flicks that require insurance; so do teen comedies, dark dramas and documentaries.
Most films require multiple types of insurance policies, with each covering a specific area such as props, sets, wardrobe, cast problems and workers compensation. If you use airplanes in a movie, aviation coverage is required. There is also a marine policy for ships and animal mortality insurance for critters of various shapes and sizes.
Whatever the risk, Palmer said his company is committed to supporting the director’s vision.
“If somebody says, ‘Hey, I want my lead actor to jump off the Empire State Building in a movie,’ there is always a way — digitally or with a descender rig, for example,” Palmer said. “It’s not our role to tell our client you can’t do that. Our job is to help them realize their creative vision while controlling and managing the risks.”
Production delays can cost filmmakers as much as $500,000 a day, so the right insurance can save a movie and the wrong policy can break it.
“Large-budget, complicated films are real challenges because the daily costs are so high and the loss potential is therefore greater,” said Peter Robey, president of Aon/AGR’s international operations.
Aon/AGR has handled insurance for all the James Bond films, including Daniel Craig’s 007 debut in “Casino Royale”. Parts of that movie were filmed at Pinewood Studios, a short walk from the company’s London office.
Aon/AGR brokers also arranged to bring specially trained lions to South Africa for the Michael Douglas film “The Ghost and the Darkness” and set up “snow cover” insurance for “A Simple Plan” — a policy that came in handy when Minnesota had an uncharacteristically dry winter.
Weather and accidents are not the only concerns for film-insurance brokers. Lawsuits, like the ones filed by people who embarrassed themselves in Sacha Baron Cohen’s raunchy 2006 comedy “Borat”, must be protected against.
Other challenging films brokered by Aon/AGR have included “Titanic” for its elaborate sets and special effects, the Harry Potter series because they “create an entire world” and “Troy” with “literally a cast of thousands”, Palmer said.
Occasionally, death even intrudes. Oliver Reed had a fatal heart attack before shooting ended in “Gladiator” and his role had to be completed digitally, including using snippets from film outtakes.
But if an insurance broker does his job well, nothing should come as a surprise.
“There’s nothing we feel we can’t do,” Kingman said. “We’re risk experts.”