When “Fast And Furious” star Paul Walker died and left the seventh film in the franchise hanging in the balance, it wasn’t the first time a studio and its insurer faced such a situation, but the point at which production has reached on “Fast and Furious” may carry extra considerations into talks over how to make use of the film’s cast insurance coverage.
It’s not clear if those talks are yet taking place, and it’s far from clear how they will play out. Universal Pictures, the studio making “Fast and Furious 7,” and its insurer, Fireman’s Fund, have had little to say publicly following Walker’s death at the end of November. Universal issued a shutdown notice earlier this month.
Those with knowledge of how such talks go down say the discussion will likely be over how best to finish the film from a creative standpoint first, then secondly how best to proceed in terms of financing.
“It’s a creative decision in my opinion,” said Brian Kingman, managing director of Gallagher Entertainment Services, a big player in the entertainment insurance market. “The insurance company will weigh in from an economic standpoint and challenge the necessity of the creative path, but it’s hard for the insurance company to compete with the creative forces of a movie – that’s their business, not the insurance company’s business.”
The choice is to either put in an abandonment claim under the cast insurance policy and come up with a reason why it can’t be completed with a different actor, or find a way to use what film has been shot and complete the movie.
The movie is generally considered to be at the summit of production, so in the latter case filmmakers would likely have to find a way to make use of Walker’s scenes and finish the film without him in a way the story makes sense.
“They’ve got to figure out a way to come down from that summit,” Kingman said.
Paul Bond, West Coast business editor for The Hollywood Reporter, believes the studio is unlikely to abandon the film.
“‘Fast and Furious’ is probably Universal’s most important live-action film franchise, so it’s almost inconceivable they’ll let it die out without a fight,” said Bond, who is covering the investigation into the car crash that killed 40-year-old Walker, a passenger in a 2005 Porsche Carrera GT that burst into flames after the driver lost control and slammed into a telegraph pole on Nov. 30. “Filmmakers are working on rewrites now and looking at the footage shot prior to Walker’s death.”
Donna Mescall, product manager at Philadelphia Insurance Cos., said both parties will likely weigh the expense of abandoning the project versus the number of days in the can and how much filming must be reshot to complete the film.
Despite the creative force of the studios, the insurer will come down on the side of what will likely be the most affordable option, Mescall said, adding, “The company’s going to push for them to use as much as the existing film as possible.”
According to THR‘s Bond, Universal is hoping that the film can begin shooting again as early as January.
“The delay is costing money, but there is a lot of incentive for Universal and the insurer to come to an agreement over which costs the insurer must absorb,” Bond said. “Killing this $150 million movie is likely the least attractive option for both the insurer and Universal. Any way you slice it, this will be a big claim for the insurer, which, in a sense, has suddenly become an intricate financial partner in the film — much more so than is usual. When all is said and done, Walker’s death could lead to one of the largest insurance claims in Hollywood history.”
A statement from Universal doesn’t detail how long the ongoing shutdown will last, and the producer declined a request for an interview.
“Right now, all of us at Universal are dedicated to providing support to Paul’s immediate family and our extended Fast & Furious family of cast, crew and filmmakers,” the statement reads. “At this time we feel it is our responsibility to shut down production on Fast & Furious 7 for a period of time so we can assess all options available to move forward with the franchise. We are committed to keeping Fast & Furious fans informed, and we will provide further information to them when we have it. Until then, we know they join us in mourning the passing of our dear friend Paul Walker.”
Fireman’s Fund also declined to speak on the record.
“Film stoppages like this are rare, but not unheard of,” Bond said. “Sometimes a death of an actor could kill a movie, as was the case with ‘Something’s Got to Give,’ which would have starred Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin, but Monroe died prior to the film’s completion and it was scrapped entirely.”
Bond added, “A movie called ‘Dark Blood’ was to star River Phoenix, but he died and the film died with it.”
However, “The Crow,” the popular revenge film starring Brandon Lee, son of Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee, went on to success after Lee died on the set. Filmmakers used a stunt double and some special effects to complete the movie and release the film. “The Twilight Zone” was another film in which actors died during the making of the movie that went on to completion.
Just how Universal and Fireman’s handle the situation is anybody’s guess, but Bond believes the solution will likely include footage of the popular actor who is so closely tied to the franchise.
“I don’t think Universal is simply looking to replace Walker’s character with a different actor,” Bond said. “More likely, they’ll find a clever, believable way to retire Walker’s character from this film and future films in the series.”
Bond said he thinks fans will support the film “wholeheartedly,” because the popularity of past films has traditionally brought out action-thirsty moviegoers, and it will draw audiences who want to pay tribute to Walker. It also may draw those who are just curious to see what a solution to this tragedy looks like on screen, he said.
“Some are saying privately that Walker’s sad death might have even boosted the film’s box office potential,” Bond said. “Certainly, fans are eager to see the actor in his final role and moviegoers in general will be curious to see how the filmmakers navigated this tricky situation. If it’s a good film, expect a ‘Fast and Furious 8’ and more beyond that.”
(Reporter Don Jergler is the West Coast editor of Insurance Journal.)