Paul Walker's Death: Why 'Fast & Furious 7's' Insurer May Decide Movie's Fate
This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the wake of Paul Walker's death, Universal Pictures might have an unanticipated partner on the seventh installment of the Fast & Furious franchise: its insurance company, Fireman's Fund.
As a matter of course, Universal, like all studios involved in film production, has insurance on its projects to protect its investment if tragedy strikes, as it did when Walker died Nov. 30. While those at the studio mourn, they also are confronted with major decisions about how to proceed with Fast & Furious 7, a key piece of their business that still is a work in progress.
The studio has been mum about how much footage had been shot with Walker or whether his work on the film was anywhere near completion. But Universal undoubtedly already has spent tens of millions on a film that is expected to cost north of $150 million. If studio execs were to conclude at this point that the movie could not be finished, the insurer would be on the hook for the money already spent.
"There are two choices: to complete or abandon," says Brian Kingman of insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. "Completion can be cheaper, and that's probably what the insurance company would want done." Not that he expects that to be a bargain: "My guess is, it's going to cost a lot of money to hold the movie together, to put together creative options," he says. The insurer would cover a wide range of expenditures, from the expense of a delay to the cost of rewriting and recasting -- but that still is likely to be less expensive than writing off the film altogether.
Universal has every reason to proceed given the fact that Fast & Furious is the studio's only major live-action franchise and the last installment grossed $789 million worldwide. But the studio may find itself in a tough negotiation with its insurer. Universal might want to cast a higher-priced actor, for example, while the insurer could argue that is unnecessary. (Neither Universal nor Fireman's Fund would comment.)
While Kingman says he expects that an insurer would be "generous" in this situation given its ongoing relationship with the studio, another broker isn't so sure. "Insurance companies deal in cold, hard facts," says this person. "Their job is to try to minimize any payout that they might have to make."
The circumstances surrounding the car accident that took Walker's life remain unclear, but this broker and Kingman agree that an insurance company might examine whether Walker's behavior breached the terms under which he was insured and in some way contributed to his death. In that case, the company could sue his estate to recoup some of its costs. Stars must be insured before they perform in films and are asked to sign affidavits on potentially risky activity. Among many questions, Fireman's Fund asks actors whether they are likely to "race any type of vehicle" in the months ahead. Whether Walker responded in the affirmative is not known; if so, Universal might have had to pay a higher premium.
Walker was not driving the Porsche Carrera GT at the time of the crash, and police have ruled out the possibility that the car was racing. But speed might have been a factor in the accident, and the car has been described as exceptionally difficult to handle. According to Kingman, the insurance policy also likely had an exclusion for "hazardous stunts" that castmembers might perform, and Kingman says it is not necessarily clear that the language applies only to activity undertaken while filming is in progress.
Since Walker raced cars in the past, the insurer also might have asked him to sign a "hazardous activity" warranty promising that he would not engage in risky hobbies while the film was in production. (Such requests are routine for performers and athletes who ride horses or pilot planes.) Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the insurer might be able to argue that Walker did not fulfill his commitment to play it safe when he got into this particular car with a driver who also enjoyed racing.
But Kingman believes the insurer is unlikely to play that type of hardball. Following the 1993 death of Brandon Lee while filming The Crow, says Kingman, the insurer on the project "went above and beyond the call of duty" to get the film finished. Another broker doesn't necessarily expect that but does anticipate that Universal will negotiate to ensure its insurer has to cover the additional cost of finishing the movie. "The insurer essentially becomes another financier because they've got a lot of money at stake," says this observer. "So if they're going to pay out, you have to play nice in the sandbox."