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This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The fiery crash that took Paul Walker’s life has plunged Universal Pictures into an unprecedented crisis. Executives are trying to find a way to salvage footage already shot for Fast & Furious 7 instead of starting fresh. But experts say that either way, this tragic twist could lead to the largest insurance claim in Hollywood history.
Sources say writer Chris Morgan now is at work crafting revisions to the script that Universal execs hope can retire Walker’s character from the series using scenes already shot. If he succeeds, cast and crew could be called back to work by late January — but that’s a big if.
The morning following Walker’s Nov. 30 death, top Universal execs held a conference call to mull the next steps. An insider stresses that the priority was supporting the shocked and bereaved family, cast and crew. NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer subsequently called all on that list to offer condolences.
Studio chairman Donna Langley — in her first major leadership test since being promoted in September — and production co-president Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, the lead exec on the Fast movies, were designated to run point on finding a creative solution for the franchise. According to a knowledgeable source, the studio already has poured about $150 million into the film, a bill that its insurance firm, Fireman’s Fund, might have to pay in full if Universal concludes the picture must be started anew. Fireman’s Fund declined comment, as did Universal.
The wreck of the Porsche Carrera GT creates a uniquely nightmarish scenario for Universal. In addition to losing the star of its most important live-action franchise — a series about fast cars — in a devastating crash, the accident occurred when the film was well underway but nowhere near completion. “Almost exactly half of his role was done,” says one source. Another says Walker was scheduled for considerable work on the film the week following his death.
For newly named Universal filmed entertainment chairman Jeff Shell, who has very limited experience in movies, the disaster is a baptism by fire. An insider says Shell has taken “a 90,000-foot approach,” leaving the business and creative issues to Langley and team. That includes Kirschenbaum, director James Wan, producer Neal Moritz and Morgan.
With the studio declaring force majeure — an unforeseeable circumstance that prevents work from proceeding — filming has been postponed indefinitely. Shutting down saves some money but creates a thicket of issues since cast and crew — and their guilds — have varying deals governing whether they can be kept on hold and for how long. SAG-AFTRA, for instance, requires the studio to pay half of actors’ salaries during the suspension, but stars (as well as Wan and key crew) might have deals with other provisions. Those are among the business and legal challenges that fall to studio president Jimmy Horowitz.
Following the initial meeting, marketing co-president Michael Moses scrambled to alter the ad campaign for the Fast & Furious 6 DVD, which was set for release Dec. 10. Spots were changed to reflect the studio’s plan to donate some proceeds to Walker’s nonprofit Reach Out WorldWide and to include more iconic images from the series.
Insurance broker Brian Kingman of Gallagher Entertainment says Universal executives could determine that footage shot cannot be salvaged. The applicable standard is that the abandonment must be “reasonable, practical and necessary” — should Universal conclude that’s the case, the burden would be on Fireman’s Fund to prove otherwise or pay the claim. “If I were the broker, I would [calculate] how many days had already been captured, how many were left,” says Kingman. “I would look at the original arc of the story and get input from the director, the producers and the studio as to why, notwithstanding the financial impact, the story doesn’t make sense to complete. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. The studio should not have to make a movie it doesn’t want to make to accommodate an insurance company.”
A Universal source says based on fan reaction, there is support for completing the version of the movie that was underway, even though it is said to contain several car crashes. “What will drive everything is, is there an honorable and sensible way to do this?” says the source, but “there’s not really a road map” for the situation.
While a January restart is the goal, it is far from certain. Sources say the film’s July 11 release has been scrapped (Fox moved its Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to that slot). But insiders are confident Universal will release a seventh Fast and probably an eighth. “I actually believe [the tragedy] will add to returns,” says a rival studio exec. A Universal insider agrees: “Sadly, it will probably make people more interested.”
Pamela McClintock contributed to this story.
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