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Documentary Production Insurance: Don't Shoot Away from Home without It

By Yvonne Cordova

A film production client of mine once insisted on hiring its own local security for a shoot on location in Mexico. It was a feature film, the crew and talent were in place, and shooting was set to begin the next day. You know what happened: The following morning, the producer and crew awoke to find all their equipment missing, never to be recovered.   

Foreign documentary productions can be perilous. Losing your equipment to theft is one of many risks you face when producing a documentary in a foreign country. Travel in unfamiliar, often remote locations. Unfamiliar language, customs, governments. Weather, disease, conflict. All these factors increase the risks you incur producing a documentary film on foreign soil.

As a documentary producer, you will likely use handhelds and travel more lightly than my unfortunate feature film client. But even if you don't have millions of dollars in equipment on location, you still are investing substantial money, time and talent in a foreign film production.

Fortunately, there are ways to help protect your investment: By reducing risk wherever you can, and by securing  film insurance coverage in case you incur any losses. We usually recommend that foreign film producers purchase insurance to cover their equipment and content (producer's portfolio), workers compensation (covers not only your crew but also locally hired foreign workers), general liability (covers you in case of third-party claims of injury or property damage) and non-owned automobile policies (for vehicles you hire while on location).

The following tips will help you anticipate and reduce risks to your production—and make it easier for you to obtain the insurance coverage you need while traveling to a foreign country and shooting on location. In a nutshell, you need local knowledge and a detailed plan—and, as emphasized above, you must protect your equipment. 

Find Local Knowledge and Resources

Rule number one for reducing risk while producing a documentary in a foreign country: Always know the territory—or work with someone who does.

 "The number one thing is obviously to have local knowledge," explains JonPaul Evans, an agent/broker at The Truman Van Dyke Company in Los Angeles, who is experienced in providing insurance coverage for foreign documentary productions. "You want a field producer with local knowledge of the territory. You don't want to be in situation where you don't know what street you've turned down; you have a camera guy, grip, gaffer and other assets with you; and they're all dependent on you knowing where you are and where you're going."

Knowing the territory—and having permission to be there—is especially crucial if you're traveling into areas in conflict. Standard insurance policies typically exclude war, confiscation and rebellion, so producers who are traveling into areas at risk of conflict need to discuss their specific travel plans with their insurance agent to determine what coverage can be obtained and how. Filming in hostile countries without government permission is considered very risky and is generally not advised; in these situations, for instance, we often hear about confiscation of equipment because government authorities and other locals can be suspicious about what you're doing. However, in some cases, producers are able to mitigate their risks using military escorts and drivers, hiring bodyguards and security to protect equipment at risk.

When we are evaluating and deciding whether to underwrite an overseas production, we often turn to government resources—for example, the US and British governments' travel warning websites—that can provide in-depth and current knowledge of local countries' conditions, health, crime, entry requirements, visa issues and currency issues, and other potential hazards.

Evans typically asks his clients, "Is there a film commission in the area that can assist?" The best sources of local knowledge can be film commissions and other organizations specifically oriented to providing local support and resources for foreign filmmakers. "Film commissions offer a world of resources, everything from locations to shoot to hotel discounts in the area to insights from someone who's already shot in the area."

Producers also can contact local universities, tour groups and nonprofit charitable organizations that know the territory. These organizations can recommend drivers, interpreters and accommodations. You should also consider hiring experts to help you deal with harsh conditions. "Coming from the United States, your documentary crew won't be used to the local weather, food, water, elevations, wild animals and other local conditions that need to be taken into consideration," Evans notes.

In addition to the knowledge, there can be other advantages to hiring on location. "Often times you may get credits for hiring locals," Evans says. "A lot of people like to film in London because they get huge tax credits for filming and for hiring local people."

Have a Plan—and Stick to It

Another essential means of reducing risk—and a key piece of information for obtaining insurance—is a detailed itinerary for your foreign shoot.

 "You want to have an itinerary, a plan," Evans explains. "If you have, say, six or seven people on your team, everyone needs to be together, everyone needs to be aware of the itinerary, so you can keep control of your crew and know everyone is safe. Designate someone to go over the itinerary and know where everyone is, to be the point of contact, just to know that everyone is following that order of operations in this region. Sometimes, everyone in the crew sends an email or text message in the morning and at night to say, ‘We're safe.' Otherwise you may be spending your time looking for an asset rather than filming."

The ideal itinerary is very specific and detailed. For example, one producer we worked with recently provided an itinerary that included plans for two or three producers to scout the area and look for their field producer. There was a detailed breakdown of the shoot—the itinerary included breakfast, lunch and dinner details for each day, local contacts, emergency contacts, the local driver and other information for the crew. 

Protect Your Equipment

Obviously, insurance coverage is recommended for all of your equipment—but given the challenges of replacing it while in the midst of producing your foreign documentary, you also want to do everything you can to prevent damage that might delay or end production or result in unusable footage.

When in transit, for instance, "Be sure to be in contact with the airline and red-sticker your fragile equipment," Evans says. "Make sure you have all the necessary tools to use the equipment and maintain it in harsh conditions. For example, do you have proper brushes for cleaning out lenses after a sandstorm? Are you prepared for extreme heat and cold, to prevent fogging or bad footage?"

Know Who to Call When Something Goes Wrong

In addition to insurance coverage, an insurance company that specializes in covering foreign film productions will also generally provide you with emergency medical and travel assistance services. The producers and crew will be issued a card with a toll-free telephone number allowing you to obtain round-the-clock services such as medical evacuation coverage, personal security and evacuation in case of danger, and multilingual coordinators who can talk to local contacts to facilitate your care and safe return home.

ProSight Specialty Insurance specializes in providing insurance policies that cover features, documentaries, TV series, short films, webisodes and other productions.


Typical Insurance Policies for Foreign Documentary Productions

Producer's Portfolio: Documentaries don't need cast insurance, but this covers the producer, lost footage due to faulty equipment or stock, equipment including rental cameras, and extra expenses due to production delays.

Foreign General Liability: Covers property damage and injury to others.

Foreign Non-Owned Auto: Covers property damage and injuries involving the use of rented vehicles.

Foreign Workers Compensation: Provides medical care and rehab for employees injured on the job or who contract a work-related illness, and can cover both your crew from the US and third-country nationals.