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Dodging motorcycle crashes makes a star of movie insurer

If Rooney Mara wins an Oscar for her role as a troubled waif in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," it's unlikely she'll thank Paul Holehouse from the stage.
/ Source: Reuters

If Rooney Mara wins an Oscar for her role as a troubled waif in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," it's unlikely she'll thank Paul Holehouse from the stage.

Maybe she should. The film, produced by Sony Pictures, might never have been made without Holehouse giving his approval.

Holehouse, the senior risk consultant for Fireman's Fund Insurance, huddled with the "Dragon Tattoo" producers to change scenes in which Mara rode a motorcycle, a key element of the movie. Stunt doubles were added and scenes rewritten on the suggestion of Holehouse.

Like a house or car, films need to be insured against a star's injury, the destruction of the set and all manner of disasters that can befall a production. Fireman's Fund, which says it insures 85 percent of Hollywood's filmmaking, wrote policies for four of this year's Best Film nominees - "Moneyball," The Artist," "Hugo" and "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."

"Insurance policies are the only guarantee that a film can get completed for those involved in financing a movie, including foreign purchases, the banks, the studio and all others," said Ryan Kavanaugh, chief executive officer of Relativity Media, which has insured many of its films with Fireman's Fund. "Fireman's is one of the few parities who provide this kind of necessary insurance."

Not every film needs a dramatic fix. Fireman's Fund didn't insist on changes to last year's Oscar winner, "The King's Speech," said Holehouse. And none of this year's best film nominees needed heavy rewrites.

When pressed by Holehouse and other risk assessors, film producers usually make the changes because insurance isn't cheap. Premiums can run as high as 2 percent of a film's budget, according to studio bosses. That can cost $3 million for a film like Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," with had an estimated $150 million budget. Premiums go much higher for car chases scenes, explosions or any risky maneuvers that catch Holehouse's eye.

Holehouse, a 15-year Fireman's veteran who headed Universal Picture's risk management unit for 12 years, learned first hand the horrors of movie risks run amok while a consultant on Universal's 1995 Kevin Costner film "Waterworld." That movie famously went over its $100 million budget due to several calamities that included the destruction of its set in a storm off the coast of Hawaii.

Today, Holehouse and Fireman Fund's other risk assessors spend weeks with producers, special effects managers, technical crew and others involved in production before the first camera rolls, especially the riskier ones.

For the 2007 special effects-filled film "Next," starring Nicolas Cage, Holehouse spent weeks trekking daily to the bottom of Grand Canyon where many of the action scenes were filmed. In addition to accidents to the cast, Holehouse also watched for possible dangers to the wildlife or the environment .

By the time the cameras began rolling on the reptile-filled 2006 film "Snakes on a Plane," Holehouse said he made sure that Samuel L. Jackson's slithering co-stars were either garden snakes or defanged. "And there were a lot of rubber ones, too," he added.

Holehouse also serves as consultant on cushier gigs - this year's Grammy Awards, Super Bowls and the Lollapalooza music festival. But when the Oscar telecast begins on February 26. he will be at home watching on TV, instead of on stage alongside the producers of a film he may very well have helped get there.