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Insurance plays starring role in management of stunt risks

Movie producers negotiate over scenes to lower cover costs


When it comes to insuring Hollywood's action-packed films, the bigger the boom, the higher the jump, the braver the stunt, the more expensive and detailed the insurance policy.

"Insurers are all over films when there are stunts involved," said Shel Bachrach, president of Los Angeles-based Bachrach & Associates Inc. which specializes in entertainment insurance.

Asian action film star Jackie Chan in 2006 publicly criticized the insurance industry for setting too many safety rules when it came to his daredevil on-screen feats.

On his Web site, www.jackie, Mr. Chan griped: "There are so many safety and insurance rules to follow.... I know they want to make sure that I'm safe when I do my stunts, but sometimes they insist that I use protective gear for even simple things, and that is frustrating."

Experts say there is a misunderstanding in Hollywood that insurers typically squash the heart-pumping, high-flying stunts that can make a movie stand out at the box office. Insurance typically is available for Hollywood stunts, no matter the danger, but producers will compromise with insurers and steer clear of major risks because premiums can take an enormous bite out of film budgets, experts say.

"Certainly there is some back and forth between our loss-control (experts) and the stunt coordinator," said Paul Jones, Los Angeles-based managing director for Aon/Albert G. Ruben Insurance Services Inc., which specializes in entertainment insurance. "Changes (to scripts) are common when insurance gets involved."

Insurers "don't make things difficult for producers, actors and stuntmen; they make it expensive," said Randy Frankel, Los Angeles-based president of Frankel & Associates, a brokerage firm that also specializes in entertainment insurance. "A lot of times the premiums freak (the producers) out. The more the explosions, the car chases, the larger (and more complex) the policies."

In general, according to film and insurance experts, stunts usually are excluded from a film's cast and liability insurance policies and underwritten as a separate policy. Often, these "stunt buyouts" are underwritten individually stunt by stunt, with insurance companies monitoring scripts and storyboards closely and even sending loss-control experts to the set.

Experts say the reasons for the extra attention are obvious: "The potential for big losses is huge with stunt activity," said Mr. Jones.

When insurers decline to insure a specific stunt even as a buyout, production companies often search for insurance elsewhere for that stunt if they don't want to cut it from the film, according to Wendy Diaz, Los Angeles-based vp of the entertainment division for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., one of the major carriers in the film business. The result can leave one production relying on various carriers to protect the film, she said.

"There's no one-size-fits-all approach to (insuring) films with stunts," she said. "Our loss control (department) is heavily involved and if there's a stunt we can insure at the right price and deductible we will. Sometimes they have to go to the London markets."

"There's always a way to get things insured," said Mr. Bachrach, who also says the London market--specifically Lloyd's of London--is much friendlier towards dangerous stunts.

As for premiums and policy limits, the figures vary greatly and limits are typically bought for up to the overall costs for producing the film, which is often in the millions of dollars if a major star is performing his or her own stunts, which is a rarity, experts say.

If a major film star is injured while filming, the entire movie can lose its marketability and filming can come to a halt, leaving producers and studios millions of dollars in the hole, he said. "It's too expensive, too risky," Mr. Bachrach said. However, if a stuntman filling in for a major star is injured during filming, the production would continue, he said.

There are, however, some tricks of the trade. When an actor wants to perform his or her own stunts, Mr. Bachrach said there are some rules to follow to keep premiums at bay.

For example, producers and stars can choreograph stunts so insurers won't even consider them stunts by definition. "The idea is to choreograph the film so much so and get away from calling anything a stunt," Mr. Bachrach said.

For example, when Will Smith starred in "Ali," the story of boxer Mohammed Ali, his self-performed fights would have been considered stunts had producers not choreographed every jab, according to Bachrach, who worked on this film's insurance portfolio.

There is, however, always that frustration on set with insurance carriers and clients that want to include stunts that require more expensive policies. "You'll see that sort of thing probably every time there's been a picture with stunts involved," Mr. Bachrach said.

This ever-present battle is usually why producers will rely on stuntmen for the big explosions and daredevil scenes.

When it comes to stuntmen on the set, most that are contracted to work on films are typically "leased" to work by companies that provide stuntmen expensive workers compensation polices through various insurers, said Mr. Jones of Aon. The premiums for these coverages are typically surcharged to the production company by the leasing company and can run to 3% to 4 % of payroll, he said.