Countering the Risks: The importance of insurance and safety planning

Natural history filmmakers readily acknowledge risk and danger as inherent aspects of the job. More often than not, they shoot in remote locations, under extreme conditions, with the additional pressure of time constraints. In the face of mounting budgets and recent...
August 1, 1999

Natural history filmmakers readily acknowledge risk and danger as inherent aspects of the job. More often than not, they shoot in remote locations, under extreme conditions, with the additional pressure of time constraints. In the face of mounting budgets and recent accidents, however, production companies are re-evaluating how much of a risk they’re prepared to take. The result is a heightened interest in insurance coverage, as well as safety and hazard training for crews.


‘We have a great belief in being insured, and that belief is reinforced by our experiences on our Galapagos imax film,’ says Barry Clark, co-chairman of Los-Angeles-based Mandalay Media Arts. Last summer, Mandalay experienced a production company’s worst nightmare, when two crew members, stereographer (3-D cinematographer) Noel Archambault and pilot Bill Reeves, died during the first phase of filming for Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage. The two men were flying over a volcano with a US$465,000 2-D imax camera strapped to their ultra-light plane, when the plane destabilized and went down. ‘We had every kind of insurance known to man, and without it we would be out of business now. It would’ve compounded the tragedy with a tremendous economic blow as well.’

Mandalay had acquired additional insurance policies for the filming of Galapagos, on top of their standard coverage, explains associate producer Rebecca Toth. ‘We had foreign worker’s compensation, non-owned aircraft, non-owned watercraft, and then also the extra expense policy.’ The ‘production package’ for Galapagos also covered third party property damage; props, sets and wardrobe; negative and faulty; miscellaneous equipment; office contents; money and securities; commercial vehicles’ physical damage; and cast coverage. ‘Even with all of that, which is pretty much everything you can get, we’re still having problems [settling all of the claims].’

Not every production necessarily warrants this degree of coverage. ‘It’s almost like different levels of insurance kick in at different budget levels,’ Clark says. ‘So, if you’re doing a $50,000 program in Beta SP, you will go out with no insurance at all and hope for the best. At a certain point, you’ll get negative insurance and insurance on your equipment, and then at a later point you’ll get insurance on your key personnel, so you’ll get cast insurance for your cinematographer and director. At another point you’ll get the completion bond [a guarantee that the film will be completed]. And when you’re over a million dollars, you’ll simply get every kind of insurance available.’

The completion bond for Galapagos carried a hefty price tag, but in Clark’s opinion, it was worth it. ‘I think on Galapagos it may have cost $150,000 on a $7 million film to buy the completion bond, but it ensures for the commissioning company, the broadcaster or the exhibitor that the film will be completed and will not end up as a $7 million loss.’ Galapagos, which was in post-production at press time, is scheduled to deliver to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History on September 1, 1999.

The overall cost of insurance generally works out to be a relatively minor portion of the production budget, especially if some kind of policy has already been set up. Toth explains how it works at Mandalay: ‘As other shows come up, we declare them [add them on] to the existing production policy, which means the premiums go up, but not as much as they would for having separate policies. Then we prorate things based on dates and percentage of budget, in terms of how much each production is responsible for paying to the insurance.’ The usual rate is between two and two-and-a-half percent of the budget, and up to three percent if anything like boats or aircrafts are involved, she adds.


At larger organizations, insurance is generally an even smaller percentage of the budget. Over at Dunedin-based Natural History New Zealand, for example, general manager John Crawford says insurance averages around one percent of the production budget. ‘We have a policy which covers all of our productions, and the premiums rise based on the number of productions we do a year,’ he explains, adding, ‘We often use the same people over and over again in the field, crews that work for us on a full-time basis, so that’s a cost you’d spread over a year.’

Like Mandalay, Crawford says, NHNZ holds policies to cover: negative replacement, travel insurance (which includes medical, accident, baggage and medical evacuation), field equipment (both owned and rented), public liability, workers’ compensation, motor vehicles, errors and omissions and aviation.

An additional expense that Crawford has encountered is insurance for freelance crews. ‘Depending on where we’re operating, sometimes it’s our preference to use local crews rather than bring people in,’ he explains. ‘Increasingly, overseas crews tend to want to be covered by our insurance in one form or another, as well. They often insure in their own country, but if you’re hiring a cameraman plus his kit, often you find the kit is only insured within their respective countries, and if you want to send them further afield, they don’t have insurance. So, we either end up paying through the fee or we end up covering them with our insurance.’

Smaller companies may not be able to spread out the cost of insurance as much as larger organizations, but the value of coverage is even greater for them, given the amplified impact of any kind of accident or loss. John McKenney, president of Creston, California-based Jack McKenney Productions, remembers two occasions in which his $900/year equipment policy came in handy.

‘I have had an equipment insurance policy for ten years,’ McKenney says. ‘One time my topside movie camera and tripod fell, landing on the lens, basically destroying the lens and the camera. Insurance paid for it. The second time, I was coming back from Africa. I landed in Miami and went through customs with my gear. Six pieces went on and only five came out when I arrived in Los Angeles. My underwater Eclair camera package was ripped off. Three months later, insurance paid it off.’

McKenney says he finds it more practical and less expensive to own equipment, rather than renting, but Crawford sees benefits in both options. ‘In some cases it’s cheaper to own and in some cases it’s cheaper to rent,’ he says. ‘In the case of our film cameras, they’re in use 52 weeks of the year, and so it’s a heck of a lot cheaper [to own] rather than renting. To get something that’s only going to be used once or twice a year, you’re actually better off renting. And again, what we normally do is pick up the cost of insurance ourselves.’


While insurance is invaluable to cover costs should an unfortunate incident occur, advance safety and hazard planning could mean avoiding the incident altogether. ‘Insurance really is the last phase because it’s automatic anyway. The most important thing from our perspective is good planning, to ensure we can identify as many of the hazards as possible,’ says Crawford. ‘Good identification, good research, a very good briefing of our people and making sure they’ve got some good medical training is very, very important to us.’

In the 22 years since NHNZ began operations, it has maintained a remarkable safety record, with only a few crew injuries over the years, none of which have been fatal. Crawford explains the organization’s methods: ‘There’s always at least one person in the field who’s quite highly trained in first aid. As part of the pre-production process, we identify the hazards that may exist at various locations, and difficulties in getting to locations. We bring in a health expert and we brief our staff about the conditions; we have an evacuation plan if we’re operating in difficult places…. We keep records of inoculations for various tropical illnesses and old standard things, like tetanus. All our underwater crews must be trained up to rescue diver status. And our ordinary, land-based crews have to have regular medicals, as well.’

Late last year, a nhnz crew had to put the evacuation procedures to the test. ‘We had an evacuation from Wrangle Island in the Arctic before Christmas,’ says producer Neil Harraway. ‘Now that wasn’t a medical evacuation, but the guys were stuck. The local helicopters wouldn’t come and pick them up – they were pleading bad weather or problems with the fuel. But once we pressed that evacuation button and the international organization aea (a 24-hour medical response organization) swung into action, our guys were out within a matter of days. So, that was the system in operation.’

As a producer, Harraway says the safety training helps to balance out the inclination to take risks when he’s in the field. ‘There’s always the desire to get the next shot, to get the best shot,’ he says. ‘Whether you’re diving down deep and your brains are a bit narked [from nitrogen narcosis], or you’re up high in the mountains, where you’re cold and your judgement isn’t quite the same, you just try and impose on people the mindset of safety first. And it seems to work.’

Barry Clark at Mandalay hopes to instill a similar mindset in his people. ‘What we are seeking to do is assign someone as a safety officer on every production. That person may not be a full-time safety officer. It may be a person who is a production assistant or someone who has that additional responsibility,’ he says. ‘The safety officer then has a kind of checklist for every day of the shoot. Let’s say the shoot involves starting a fire, the safety officer makes sure that people have asbestos gloves and that there are fire extinguishers, and goes over maybe even the obvious things connected with the fire.

‘This is something that we are independently enacting on our projects as a result, basically, of the wake-up call that we got on Galapagos. I don’t know that it would have helped us. In that case it was the instability of an ultra-light in tricky terrain. But I would say that we would, in that regard, look very carefully at using an ultra-light again.’

In Clark’s opinion, the style of non-fiction programming is changing in such a way that safety and security are being reinforced anyway. ‘The style is changing for other reasons, apart from security. It’s changing because of a tendency to make tv more cinematic and non-fiction tv more cinematic, as well. And by cinematic it means planning, scripting and storyboarding. So, caution, care, planning have become very much a part of the process.’



Errors and omissions

- covers against claims that you’ve used images or titles, for example, without first getting clearance

Extra expense

- covers a claim that exceeds another policy’s limit

Negative and faulty

- insures the film itself against loss or damage

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