Insurers get movies made, but receive no Oscars

By Ed Leefeldt
Friday, February 23, 2007; 2:31 PM

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If "The Departed" wins any Academy Awards on Sunday night, Joe Finnegan won't be giving the acceptance speeches.

Still, the head of the entertainment group at Fireman's Fund played a key role in the gritty crime drama.

His company provided the insurance. Without it, banks don't finance movies, and "The Departed" might never have arrived.

In fact, Fireman's insured five of the last 10 winners for best picture, but that doesn't mean Finnegan will ever get to walk the red carpet with Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet.

"We're cool for insurers, but not by movie standards," jokes Finnegan, who bears a slight resemblance to "Departed" star Matt Damon.

"Cool" is relative. When Finnegan and his staff go on set to give advice on stunt safety and pyrotechnics, they wear khakis and golf shirts to avoid being laughed at by the cast and crew. In front of a movie's moneymen, he dresses in dark blue pin-stripes.

Fireman's, a unit of German insurer Allianz <ALVG.DE>, is among several companies providing insurance for the movie industry.

St. Paul Travelers <STA.N>, Aon Corp. <AOC.N> and Chubb Corp. <CB.N> also have entertainment units. Chubb and Travelers say they tend to focus on smaller films, television series and commercials, although Travelers insured last year's Oscar winner, "Crash."

Insurers have been in the motion picture business since the 1920s, when Fireman's insured silent-film swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks' pretty face against damage from swordfights. In the past 80 years, the company has stayed on the back lots, covering every Bond film from Connery to Craig.

Fireman's also protected the Black Pearl, the custom-made ship in "Pirates of the Caribbean," as it traveled through the Panama Canal; Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" in the humid Mexican jungle; and "The Da Vinci Code" when it rolled film in France's most famous museum, the Louvre.

Glamorous, yes, but the downside can be disastrous. Besides insuring sets, most policies include special coverage for actors. Finnegan held his breath when a woman with a broken bottle attacked "Departed" star Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor ended up with a few stitches.

Fireman's was not so lucky when an overweight John Candy died of a heart attack during "Wagons East" in 1994. The loss was more than $10 million, a record for the industry at the time.

1,000 RATS

Fireman's has insured just about anything on a set -- such as the thousands of rats required for one scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

Fireman's agreed to pay if 1,000 or more of the rats were lost. Any less was the film company's responsibility. The filmmakers ended up using some mechanical rats in addition to the real ones.

Insurers seldom get close-up shots, unless it is a murder movie like "Double Indemnity," where someone is killed for his life insurance.

But Finnegan is comfortable with this. "We don't want to be blinded by the spotlights," he said. "We're not making films, we're protecting the clients."

His often hands-on job is to cushion the blows and avert the numerous pitfalls of moviemaking, from ensuring that film negatives are not destroyed by airport X-ray machines to saving handmade costumes from hurricane damage.

There are signs that the younger generation of filmmakers, particularly those who want to make smaller movies that will appear at festivals like Sundance, are savvy about insurance.

Finnegan recently gave a lecture to graduate students in cinema at the University of Southern California and got one of the most attentive audiences he had ever seen.

"They understand," he said, "that without insurance, the bank's not going to lend money, and the film's not going to get made."

And maybe, someday, one of them will invite him to the Academy Awards.

© 2007 Reuters