EXCLUSIVE: In a development that will chill those roaming the halls of the virtual American Film Market and putting film deals together, Lionsgate has exited The Plane, the Christian Gudegast-directed action film set to star Gerard Butler. The film was the big acquisition title at last year’s AFM, and it sold out to the walls quickly after financier MadRiver International unveiled it. Lionsgate took a big chunk of the world, landing rights in North America, Latin America, the UK and India.
I’ve confirmed that Lionsgate is out, because the producers were unable to lock down production insurance that would cover a COVID-19 outbreak. The turbulence should be temporary for The Plane: MadRiver International and CAA Media Finance, which made the original deal, will make another soon with a distributor that likely will self-insure. That means the new distributor will set aside several million dollars to provide a cushion, in case a coronavirus infection were to ravage the set and force a shutdown of two weeks or longer, as recently happened with the Olivia Wilde-directed New Line thriller Don’t Worry Darling. If nothing like that happens, that money can be put back into the picture’s budget. It would cost that much or more to get an insurer to write a policy that won’t even fully cover COVID and leave at risk the $50 million budget, which is what The Plane will cost.
Deadline spoke to multiple sources close to the picture, all of whom prefaced the conversation with the admonition there are no bad guys here, including Lionsgate, whose execs tried hard to make this work because they see a potential hit film. It is just a microcosm of the difficulty that faces every indie company right now. Insurers still are adjudicating claims from film stoppages from March, and they aren’t writing new COVID policies. Those that are will charge prohibitively high rates. It might get worse for indies: Companies like Lionsgate will see overall policies expire next year. And then the risk and cost will climb for coverage of COVID. There is another insurance industry term coming up a lot, “civil authority,” when a country shuts down all shooting because of a COVID spike. Try getting a policy for that one.
The Plane will star Butler as commercial pilot Ray Torrance, who, after a heroic job of successfully landing his storm-damaged aircraft in a war zone, finds himself caught between the agendas of multiple militias that are planning to take the plane and its passengers hostage. The producers are Di Bonaventura Pictures’ Lorenzo di Bonvaventura and Mark Vahradian, MadRiver Pictures’ Marc Butan and Ara Keshishian, and Butler and Alan Siegel under their G-BASE banner. Script is by Charles Cumming and JP Davis from a book by Cumming.
The original plan was to shoot the film in Malaysia starting last month. When COVID cases spiked there, the filmmakers looked at the Dominican Republic. Same thing, and the spike happened again when they investigated filming in the U.S. That created a pause, and that is when Lionsgate stepped out. Butler’s slots are coveted, but the filmmakers are working on a scenario that will give them time. Butler will make another movie, Kandahar, in the United Arab Emirates, where those filmmakers have figured out a way to work with local government to cushion the COVID aspects of the movie. The plan right now is for that film to step in front of The Plane and shoot in January, and then The Plane will re-board and shoot late spring or summer, possibly back in Malaysia. The film sold every territory last AFM, and the offshore distributors will remain in place.
There are several movies trying to brave these issues, and a lot of different scenarios discussed to limit the exposure of film financiers. One of them is to have cast and crew bear the responsibility for their behavior, and institute strict financial penalties if it is found they violated the protocol contracts they signed to social distance and stay away from bars and parties. Several companies are requiring cast and crew to sign those clauses if they want to work. Some productions hellbent on starting have secured policies by newcomer companies. The premiums can be 20% of a film’s budget,, and some of those require pricey Halliburton-like overseers who handle PPE procedures and have the authority to shut down.
Independent films always have had it harder because of the precarious nature of financing through pre-sales and banking those contracts to create cash flow for budgets. These one-off insurance policies have made everything harder because they don’t lock in until a month before production, triggering completion bonds and finally locking in slots from actors later in the game than before. The result is that many indie distributors won’t try to make films that are north of $10 million, because they can absorb the repercussions of lower-budget shutdowns. This won’t go away until a reliable vaccine puts COVID in the rearview mirror.