On Location: The Risks of Movie Production

by Jared Wade

On Location: The Risks of Movie Production

When it comes to risk management, Hollywood certainly lives up to its reputation: There?s no business like show business. At its core, producing a film is an inherent risk where millions of dollars are put into a project that depends on the opinion of a fickle population. And when a movie?s budget passes the $100 million mark, there needs to be a genuine buzz surrounding the film just to attract enough box office ticket sales to break even.

When the complexities of the actual filmmaking process are factored in, the undertaking only becomes that much more difficult. From the cast, crew and equipment to the film's location and action sequences, there are a host of unique risks for every motion picture.

But for the Albert G. Ruben company, a subsidiary of Aon, this is nothing new. For over 40 years, Albert G. Ruben has been the primary risk management consultant and insurance broker to the film and television industry. Its client list includes over 90% of the major studios in Hollywood as well as many of the independents such as Miramax, Lion?s Gate, Regency and Morgan Creek.

As the company?s director of risk control, Chris Palmer has provided risk consultation to many of Hollywood?s biggest productions in recent years including X-Men,  Titanic and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. One of his latest projects, Sahara, has been a longtime in the making and demonstrates many of the unique challenges of making a movie.

Sahara is based on a best-selling book of the same name written by Clive Cussler and featuring legendary hero Dirk Pitt, both of which have garnered somewhat of a cult following. Working for a marine government agency, Pitt is sent off to explore an African river to determine the cause of pollution that may have catastrophic ramifications for the entire world population. But dealing with the local governments proves no easy task, and Pitt is taken on an adventure of military battles, river chases and powerful officials trying to put a permanent end to his mission.

All this translates to a blockbuster adventure film set in Africa chocked full of fight scenes, aerial and water stunts, and non-stop action. All films have their own share of complexity, but according to Palmer, the blockbuster action film is the industry?s greatest challenge. ?This film was of a greater magnitude than anything we?ve seen in recent years,? says Palmer. ?This film was on a huge scope. It was as expensive or more expensive than any James Bond film. It involved a very, very large number of people, extensive construction and involved a lot of location work...Even a romance film can be a challenge if it?s in a difficult location, but certainly with a big action film and an exotic location, the challenges are greater.?

For Palmer, this meant work had to start early and a detailed risk evaluation had to be done along with the film?s producers, Crusader Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, before production could ever begin. ?A lot of preparation went into [Sahara],? says Palmer. ?I started my involvement in the project in June of 2003 and the filming didn?t wrap until June of this year. It was a very long-term project.?

Getting Set
The first and most critical choice with Sahara was deciding where to shoot the film, which is directed by Breck Eisner and stars Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz and Steve Zahn. Using digital effects, it may have been possible to shoot much of the picture in Los Angeles, but given the large amount of action taking place in the desert, the exotic river sequences and the title of the film itself, it made sense creatively to move production to Africa.

To assist Crusader and Paramount in choosing a location, Palmer performed extensive research and analysis of the region. After much deliberation by the studios, Morocco was finally selected because it matched the story?s North African setting, allowed for actual filming in the Sahara Desert itself, and Morocco?s government and society have proven to be welcoming and supportive of U.S. film makers.

Once the location was settled, however, a whole new host of uncertainties arose. Whenever producers attempt to film outside the safe confines of a Hollywood set, many real-world issues enter the fray. ?What would you do if the government collapsed?? asks Palmer. ?What if suddenly an open civil war broke out? What would you do if there was a terrorist attack??

Although Morocco has a relatively stable, democratic government and no major civil unrest to speak of, Albert G. Ruben still saw terrorism concerns as the largest political threat to the production. ?There were a lot of concerns because when we initially started going into the country it was pretty recently after the Casablanca suicide bombings,? says Palmer. ?There?s always a concern in Northern Africa and around the Mediterranean anyway because of terrorism and political risk. If Al Qaeda launched another round of terrorist attacks, or if suddenly the problems that are going on in Iraq or Afghanistan began cropping up, then we would reach a point where staying there wouldn?t be an option.?

And it may not even be up to the film makers to come to this conclusion. They may be forced to move. ?The host country may ask you to leave,? says Palmer. ?And not because they don?t want you there, but because they?re afraid something will happen to you. There was always the possibility that the Moroccan government might say that it?s not safe for you to stay here because you?re a big target. An American feature film is an attractive target to a terrorist group because it is instant publicity.?

If the threat is so hazardous that production is unable to return, than the entire film could fall apart at the seams. After having filmed half the scenes in Morocco, it would be nearly impossible to move shooting to a Californian desert or even to other parts of the Sahara in Egypt, for example, leaving the producers with nothing but useless canisters of film.

And with the extensive construction that had been done prior to filming, it would be a huge undertaking to reproduce the key elements of the setting and action sequences somewhere else. ?If you shoot for a month and suddenly have to leave that country and can?t come back, it?s not like you can go over and recreate that because you?ve already established what the desert and the mountains in the background look like,? says Palmer. ?So in a major film, you run the possibility that it can?t be done anywhere else. It might have taken five months to build the set and you don?t have another five months.?

Because they were filming many essential scenes in the Sahara Desert, there was another all-too-real threat the filmmakers had to worry about. Filming began in the winter and extend into the spring, but if major delays began to plague the project, the devastating desert climate would have made finishing the project on schedule an impossibility. ?Once you get into June, July, August, September, the temperatures very rapidly go up to the 115 to 125 degree range, which is really unworkable,? says Palmer. ?Unless you?re a native to that kind of an environment, you can?t function in that heat.? Thankfully, there were no major filming delays, and this catastrophe was avoided.

In order to mitigate these types of risks that could conceivably put an end to the film altogether, studios must purchase what are known as abandonment risk insurance policies, which must have limits to cover the maximum foreseeable loss for the film?s producers. Depending on the circumstances, the policy provides for the costs of relocating production, rebuilding sets, reshooting entire scenes or any other of the numerous complications that can happen when trying to pick up where filming left off. And because abandonment could mean the film is never released theatrically, the policy must be large enough to cover the production?s entire budget. For blockbusters such as Sahara, this means well over $100 million of coverage.

One can then imagine the relief that was felt by everyone involved in      Sahara when a major victory in the war on terror occurred in Morocco shortly after the crew arrived. ?The Moroccan government in coordination with the United States managed to nail the Al Qaeda cell in Morocco while we were there filming,? says Palmer. ?They actually went in and arrested the cells, so that improved things quite dramatically.?

When You Wish upon a Star
As it is often said for all companies, the greatest asset in Hollywood is also its people. This is why power movie stars like Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks start negotiating at $20 million per film and critical flops such as Daredevil can still gross over $100 million in box office sales on the star quality of Ben Affleck and Colin Ferrell. So when it comes to the blockbuster, where hundreds of millions of dollars can potentially be riding on a precious few, protecting the film?s top talent is of the utmost priority.

This is a large concern for every movie, but filming in an exotic location makes the dangers even more complex. ?When your dealing with well-known celebrity talent, they?re targets anywhere in the world,? says Palmer. ?They?re targets in Des Moines, Iowa because of who they are. And then when you put them in an environment where terrorists are known to be operating, it obviously ratchets things up even further.?

As production was beginning just outside the city of Erfoud, Albert G. Ruben sent Palmer chartered a plane and flew over to the set to brief the cast and crew on security issues and the region they would be operating in. He broke down all of what were considered to be the most critical concerns including terrorism, crime and the security measures that would be in place for the sets, hotels, vehicles and each individual member of the cast and crew. In these efforts, the producer?s received extensive cooperation from the Moroccan government and military, which provided a substantial number of Moroccan soldiers that became part of the security apparatus in addition to the film?s own private security.

As for the film?s stars, McConaughey as Dirk Pitt and Cruz as Dr. Eva Rojas, Albert G. Ruben knew going in that they would be very well protected as most top talent usually travels with  their own personal security guards. But not wanting to take any chances, the stringent security measures that were applied production-wide also included additional bodyguards for McConaughey and Cruz. ?We maintained what was known as close protection,? says Palmer. ?Those are the guys that are right there and if need be, take a bullet for you.?

Once Palmer and the producers were confident they had taken all the steps to ensure the cast would remain safe enough to do their jobs, they faced the daunting task of making sure they would remain safe while doing their jobs. ?When you get into really large, complex action pictures there?s something hazardous going on almost all the time,? says Palmer. ?[With] the typical film you may have a handful of hazardous scenes where there?s a stunt, a scene with 500 extras or an explosion...In [Sahara], you?re dealing with action every single day. There is always something big going on. There are not a whole lot shots in the film where you?re just looking at beautiful scenery or just listening to dialogue?there?s always something happening.?

Palmer?s role in this begins as soon as he starts reading the script. And with Dirk Pitt?s adventures?captaining yachts through African rivers, treks through the desert and run-ins with African soldiers?it was obvious that a lot of planning was going to be necessary. ?One of the first things I do is prepare a risk control breakdown of the script going through analyzing every scene for the risk elements that may be in place, whether it?s aircraft, watercraft, stunts, pyrotechnics, gunfire, or a hazardous location such as working on a mountain, a cliffside, on the water or under the water.? says Palmer. ?As we move closer to filming, I have discussions with the assistant director, the stunt coordinator, aerial coordinator and the special effects coordinator to find out how each of these things are going to be done. And that involves going through the storyboards, which give us a pictorial representation of what the action is going to look like on camera.?

For the roles of Dirk Pitt and his trusty sidekick Al Giordino, played by Zahn, the actors had to go through extensive conditioning and specialized training for hand-to-hand combat, gunplay and battle scene work, both to ensure the actors safety and so that the action looks realistic on the big screen. Months prior to filming, the actors began training and the stunt coordinator started working with the film makers to map out and choreograph the action sequences. Since they are the experts, Palmer does not provide much input on how the stunts should be conducted, but he is there in a support role to make sure everything is in place so they can do their job safely including the number of personnel, the equipment, rehearsal time, and the placement of the film crew?s cameras and equipment.

As the stunts are planned out, Albert G. Ruben must also work with the insurance underwriters to give them a clear idea what risks there will be on the set, which action sequences will be performed by the actor and which will be done by stuntmen. ?Movie stars don?t generally do their own stunts but they do things that go beyond acting,? says Palmer. ?Our job is to make that happen by getting the insurance company comfortable with the amount of training the actor is going to have and the nature of the action. There are some ground rules that are agreed to between the production company and the insurer and I?m sometimes the liaison that says ?We need this actor to be able to shoot guns, to run and jump around, and ride a camel or drive a car.? Now he can?t crash the car, jump the car or do stunts on the camel, and this is agreed to in advance...My job is to make sure the underwriters are comfortable with the action so that it is insured and then to make sure that the safety precautions are being followed to keep that person from getting hurt.?

Sometimes, getting the two sides on the same page can be a difficult task. ?It?s up to me to explain that we?re going to do A, B and C, and how we?re going to do them safely,? says Palmer. ?If the production is going to have four helicopters, three airplanes, 10 people parachuting, a building collapsing, explosions going off and gunfire, how can this be done without getting people hurt and without damaging property? That?s the tricky part.?

In Case of Emergency
No matter how much training the performers receive or how many safety protocols are put in place, the potential for injury remains. And in remote settings like the Sahara Desert there is not necessarily an emergency room nearby or an ambulance to call. So the producers brought one with them.

A full medical staff was brought on board complete with a life support ambulance from the United Kingdom and a team of trauma paramedics, nurses and a physician. These medical professionals would be able to respond quickly to any emergency situation, handle any minor injuries suffered on the shoot or give care to any members of the cast or crew that became ill during production.

If any major event were to occur, however, further measures had to be in place. A medical evacuation plan was formulated to deal with serious medical issues that would have taken the cast or crew member to the hospital in Er Rachdia. If this facility was still incapable of handling the situation then another air lift would bring the person to the American hospital in Rabat or if need be, all the way to Zurich or the United Kingdom.

Fortunately, like most of Albert G. Ruben?s films, there were no major accidents on Sahara. ?I?ve worked on over 900 productions in my career and have yet to have a significant injury on any of them,? says Palmer. ?I have some wood very close by that I?m touching while saying that.?

Already a Success
While Crusader and Paramount will surely hold judgement until seeing the gross box office figures when Sahara opens this March, Albert G. Ruben?s goal of a seamless production has already been accomplished. It is now in the hands of the postproduction and marketing teams to make the film a financial success.

With its experience and expertise, this has become the norm for the company whose role in the film industry goes unseen by most. But given the huge scale of action in this film and its exotic location, it is still a formidable accomplishment. ?Our job is to help our client realize their creative vision on the screen not to say to ?This is how you?re going to make your film,?? says Palmer. ?Our job is to help our clients realize that vision safely without loss.?

Now Albert G. Ruben can look forward to seeing this project on the silver screen. But for Palmer, much of the fun is still in the challenge of process itself. ?It was exciting because not only did we have the normal things that we always get involved in?stunts, effects, aircraft, boats and medical issues?but we also had issues of terrorism and kidnap and ransom,? says Palmer. ?Morocco is a wonderful place. I can?t wait to go back.?

Jared Wade is RM?s associate editor.

Reprinted from Risk Management Magazine.
Copyright Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. All rights reserved.