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The Insure Thing: Underwriting Filmmakers in Unstable Environments

By Winnie Wong

From Scott Lindgren's <em>Into the Tsangpo Gorge</em>, which was insured by DeWitt Stern. Photo: Charlie Munsey (c) 2002 Charlie Munsey

We are pulling this article from the archive to promote our upcoming Doc U: Shooting Overseas: Making Your Doc on Foreign Soil at the AFCI Locations Show at the L.A. Convention Center. On Friday, June 15, we are hosting a panel of doc filmmakers who have traveled the globe and film commissioners whose job it is to make filming in their countries as straightforward as possible. Register for the AFCI Locations Show and RSVP for this free Doc U today!


When it comes to documentarians, they go "where no man has gone before" to get their story--South Africa, Brazil, China, Russia, India, Afghanistan...Space? There are evidently no "final frontiers" for documentaries. But filming abroad can be very arduous; traveling, language, customs and being in constant motion can result in potential risks even for the most seasoned film producer. Wouldn't it be great if documentarians could "beam down" to their destination, conduct their filming and "beam up" in time for supper?  I wish it were possible; it would make my job much easier.  

As an insurance broker, it is my job to secure a variety of coverages to protect my clients while filming abroad. The coverages are as follows:

  • Foreign Package, which consists of:

Foreign General Liability--covers occurrences of bodily injury and property damages that the insured is legally obligated to pay.

Foreign Auto--covers occurrences of bodily injury and property damages due to the use of non-owned vehicles.

Foreign Workers Compensation--pays for medical care and rehabilitation for employees who are injured on the job or contract a work-related illness.  Coverage is only provided for US hires and third-country nationals.

  • Accidental Death and Dismemberment--provides funds in the event of a fatal accident or an accident that results in the loss of a limb or eyesight.
  • Kidnap and Ransom--provides coverage for kidnapping, extortion, wrongful detention and hijacking.
  • Equipment Coverage--provides coverage for rented or owned equipment. This policy will provide coverage for damage, destruction, theft or vandalism.

For a price quote, you would need to provide the following information:

  • Who are the production personnel and how many of them will be going aboard?
  • Of the production personnel, how many are US citizens and how many are third-country hires?
  • What is the budget, and what is this film about?
  • When and how long will the production personnel be on location?
  • Where are they filming and what are their accommodations?

In a nutshell, the practice of underwriting is like looking into a crystal ball. If the underwriter foresees a potential risk that could result in injury or illness to film crew, theft of or damage to equipment and the all-important negative or videotape, your insurance premiums could be affected. 

Insuring a documentary that is filmed abroad is much easier than insuring a feature production. Most documentary teams are small, composed of two to five individuals who carry portable cameras, lighting and sound equipment and film in England, Europe, Asia and Japan. Times are changing, however; there is increasing demand for more ambitious documentary projects--such as series, which means bigger budgets and larger film crews.

From Les Guthman's <em>Churning the Sea of Time: A Journey up the Mekong to Angkor</em>, which was insured by DeWitt Stern. Photo: Les Guthman. (c) 2006 XPLR Productions, LLC

Presently, insurance companies have concerns with any filming that takes place in hostile, unstable countries where terrorist attacks and violent crime can occur. The insurance carriers rely on the travel warnings that are issued by the US State Department. In addition to this list, the State Department issues Consular Information Sheets for every country that provides helpful information on health conditions, crime, unusual currency or entry requirements, any areas of instability, and the location of the nearest US embassy or consulate. 

The following countries are currently subject to travel warnings: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia-Herzogova, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Eritrea, Gaza/The West Bank, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somolia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, Yemen.

If your intended country is dangerous to foreigners and there is a possibility of bombings, carjacking, kidnapping, home invasions or burglary, the underwriters would recommend that another location be utilized. As it is not the underwriter's intent to stifle the vision of the project, risk management tools such as being accompanied by a military escort, drivers, bodyguards or security guards, or working in conjunction with a nonprofit charitable organization may be required in order to obtain insurance. 

From Mike Bradford's <em>Mende in LA: Help Is on the Way</em>, which was shot in Sierra Leone. Courtesy of Mike Bradford

So what should you expect to happen if you want to film in one of these hot spots? Ultimately, you can anticipate a more lengthy underwriting experience and a higher foreign workers compensation premium, since the well-being of your film crew is the underwriter's primary concern. In addition, your equipment deductible may increase because the underwriter anticipates a higher probability that your equipment will get damaged or stolen. You may want to consider providing Kidnap or Ransom, Accident and Death & Dismemberment coverage so that if something happens to your crew members, their families would be compensated.

Besides man-made perils, there are natural perils of which documentarians need to be cognizant. Proper care should be made when your project involves filming on or near water, climbing high elevations, enduring extreme weather conditions and working around wild animals. It is recommended that you utilize expert advisors, establish safety plans and purchase or rent the right supplies and equipment 

As you are not filming in your own backyard, you must be especially careful with your equipment. If your camera is damaged when you're filming aboard, you may not be able to find a suitable replacement from a local rental house, or you may have to wait days for a replacement camera to get to you. Plan ahead and have a contingency scenario in mind; you may not always have the luxury of doing a re-shoot.

Take caution when hiring locals to assist you with the language, directions and accommodations. We have had reports that locals are occasionally responsible for lost or stolen property. In addition, there have been reported instances in which locals sabotaged and prevented production companies from filming in their region. Again, plan ahead and utilize tour groups, universities and nonprofit agencies and have them recommend reliable people.

Remember, you are not alone when you have insurance coverage in place. We are there to hold your hand. The insurance company can provide:

  • 24 hour claims assistance
  • Emergency medical evacuation--arrangement for medical transport to an appropriate medical facility or to return home in order to receive care.
  • Repatriation of remains--arrangement of transportation to return remains in the event of death.

What kinds of losses have been reported on documentaries? See examples below:

  • Car accident occurred and insured had to be transported to US for treatment.
  • Equipment was stolen out of the car while parked in front of a local restaurant.
  • Camera equipment was broken while being transported on a US Navy ship. 
  • Within 48 hours after returning from filming abroad, an illness put a crew member in a hospital on a ventilator. It was later determined that the illness was viral and was contracted from rat feces.
  • Film crew members were robbed of all of their money by the porters they had hired to work with them.
  • Camera equipment was damaged by water during a boat ride. 
  • Equipment was stolen at airport.

Let's face it, filmmaking is hard and arduous work--but in the end, it's worth it because your film has the potential to impact and influence an unlimited audience.

So, as they say on the Starship Enterprise, "Live long and prosper." Time to beam me up, Scotty!


Winnie Wong is vice president of Momentous Insurance Brokerage Inc. (