What's It Like to Insure a Movie?

A crowd looks on as a motorcycle stunt driver soars through the air having jumped through a ring of fire.

People ask Aaron Ma if they can do crazy things: jump from train to train, dive into a cave, drive through a tornado or fly a helicopter into a building — to name a few.

As vice president at Xcess Insurance Brokers in Los Angeles, he brokers insurance for all kinds of movies, so people approach him to make sure they can get financial protection for their productions. 

This is an essential part of the movie business, especially when you consider how much movies cost these days.

“When you’re putting up $50 million to release a feature film, you’re going to try to find ways to lessen the risk of something going wrong so you don’t lose all your money before it even hits the screen,” Ma explained.

This is especially true when a lot of people are taking money out of their life savings to make movies and don’t want something like a car accident or bad weather to ruin it. 

“At the end of the day, I love the science of being able to protect companies, and I think it’s a noble and an honorable thing that our industry does,” he said.

Ma spoke with MyPath recently about his career and what he loves about it, and how you can basically do any movie stunt you want as long as you have taken all the right precautions.

MyPath: Why do movies need insurance?

Ma: A lot of people think of entertainment as a leisure activity and an art form, and while that’s certainly true, it’s also a business. And the people in the entertainment industry — just like bankers, those in the oil industry, and lawyers and accountants — have dollars at stake in their businesses. We’re talking about spending $30 to $100 million on a movie — that’s equivalent to the cost of a skyscraper. You definitely want to protect that investment.

MyPath: So how are you involved?

Ma: I’ve been in the entertainment insurance industry now for 16 years, and I’m currently a wholesale insurance broker. Our agency works with brokers in all 50 states to help them with projects that their clients are working on. So, when a broker in Montana or Arkansas needs to insure a movie and doesn’t have that expertise, we come in to help determine what would be the best way to protect the investment.

MyPath: How many films do you work on each year?

Ma: Probably 20 to 30. I don’t like talking about specific clients, but I would say that most everybody out there would probably have seen a few films that I or my firm has been involved with or has insured.

MyPath: What’s the play by play, in terms of what you need to do, from the time when a movie comes across your desk to the time when it’s finished filming?

Ma: Usually, when it reaches my desk, we have some generic questions for our clients, such as, “What’s the film about, and when are you going to start?” Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, most filming starts within a week of when they first call us because they have forgotten about insurance until they try to rent their first camera or pull their first permit, and then the people who are renting them cameras or issuing permits start asking them, “Hey, do you have insurance?”

Then we typically get a script, the synopsis, the budget and the schedule, and we start tearing through them to try to help our insurance company partners understand the risk better. Insuring a movie that has two people in a boardroom walking around and talking is way different than insuring people jumping from buildings, trying to drive through a tornado, bungee jumping, or scuba diving and cave diving 100 feet. 

Up front, we try to figure out what about the film makes it difficult or riskier to insure, so we can make sure it’s something that we can reasonably provide insurance coverage for. In most situations, stunt people want to do things like run on top of a train or jump over the hood of a car. And, obviously, before they actually shoot the film, they want to make sure that if something were to happen, it’s not a $50,000 to $500,000 financial loss because of something not being insured.

MyPath: What’s it like to watch a film you’ve insured?

Ma: Actually, I try not to watch any films I’ve insured, mostly because I’ve read the scripts already. Also, working in the insurance industry kind of changes your view. When I’m watching a movie and see a stuntman jumping from building to building, I wonder how trained the guy was, or I wonder whether there was an inflatable below to catch him if he fell.

MyPath: Does that ruin movies for you?

Ma: Not necessarily. I enjoy what I do because when something goes wrong on a film, I love being able to tell my clients, “Yeah, this is why you bought insurance.” Some of these people are making a film that costs $500,000 to $1 million, and in most cases they got this money from their own retirement accounts, mortgaged their house, or borrowed from friends and family. So, to be put in a hole after that is scary. Just like insuring any other business, it’s someone’s passion.

MyPath: Are there any activities you have to say no to?

Ma: We may not be able to insure someone jumping out of a plane who doesn’t have a parachute, but a lot of the more difficult stunts and pyrotechnics are not necessarily something we can’t insure. It just may not be as cheap, and you may not be able to get away with not taking any precautions at all — the last thing anyone wants on a production is to have injuries.

MyPath: What do you like most about your job?

Ma: Insurance has been a really good industry for me and my colleagues because at the end of the day, we’re protecting dreams and financial investments. The risk of doing it wrong means you’re putting someone out on the street. And entertainment is definitely not the only niche industry that needs to be insured. You’ll see, by opening the newspaper today, that people are developing green and solar technology or engaging in space exploration — risky stuff. Nonetheless, every industry has great things about it, and entertainment is one of them.