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'Hobbit' Union Boycott Lifted; Jackson Claims Production Leaving New Zealand

New Zealand's Hobbit crisis deepened Wednesday night, with protests erupting in the streets amid a claim that Warner Bros. has already decided to move the troubled production from that country.

Meanwhile, local and foreign unions -- including SAG and AFTRA -- have lifted a boycott on the production, but director-producer Peter Jackson apparently fears that this may have come too late to retain the production.

The claim that Warner Bros. is packing its bags was made by Jackson's production company in a news release decrying the controversy over attempts to unionize actors on the Lord of the Rings prequel. The release alleged that "next week, Warners are coming down to NZ to make arrangements to move the production offshore."

The statement by Jackson's Wingnut Films argued that "the lifting of the blacklist on The Hobbit does nothing to help the film stay in New Zealand." It added that "the damage inflicted on our film industry by (the union) is long since done."

The government shares the concern. In an interview on local television, Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee said he was aware that Warner Bros. was examining at least one other country and that he would meet with studio representatives when they visit next week "to see what their requirements might be."

In an interview on New Zealand radio that aired Wednesday night Los Angeles time, Brownlee identified England as the other country that has caught Warners' interest, and said that the Harry Potter sets were under consideration as a shooting facility.

Also next week, THR has learned that a group of actors are planning rallies Wednesday in five cities across New Zealand in an effort to persuade Warner Bros. to keep the production in country. The actors tell THR that they believe studio officials plan to be in the country Tuesday through Thursday.

Helen Kelly, the head of New Zealand's Council of Trade Unions, told THR that the international boycott of the production had actually been lifted several days ago, but any announcement of that had been delayed at Warner Bros.' request, for reasons that were unclear.

Kelly added that the entire dispute may be a cover for attempts by the studio to extract higher production incentives from the New Zealand government and was part of an effort to damage New Zealand Actors Equity, the union seeking to organize The Hobbit.

In an interview on local TV, Kelly fired back at Jackson, asserting that "if this film moves offshore, it won't be because of the [union] issues but for many other reasons around financing and tax."

She added, "It will be because Warner Bros. has decided they can make more money elsewhere."

Wingnut, in turn, blasted the union as a "gutless, small (and) self-centered group."

The facts are becoming increasingly difficult to discern. Citing the studio decision just days ago to greenlight the project, Kelly told THR that, in her view, Warner Bros. had never actually decided to make the films in New Zealand. Although Hobbit sets have been under construction in that country for some time, Kelly argued that this was a unilateral decision that Jackson made in order to influence the production location.

The claims by Wingnut and Kelly could not be independently verified.

In any case, talk of moving the production apparently began when the unionization effort moved into high gear. The possible destination of the project is unknown, although Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia and the Czech Republic are reportedly in the running if New Zealand loses out.

A studio spokesperson was unavailable for comment.

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Whether moving the $500 million production would affect the planned February start date is unclear.

Hobbit has been beset by problems for years, including lawsuits, delays, loss of original director Guillermo del Toro and, notably, the financial distress of co-financier MGM.

Back in New Zealand, a reported 1,500 film workers met in the country's capital, Wellington, with several hundred then proceeding angrily to the site of a planned NZAE meeting.

According to Kelly, NZAE had expected about 80 attendees, but the meeting was canceled in anticipation of the protest. The protest nonetheless resulted in some shouting matches in the streets. The protesters then marched on the country's parliament, where speeches continued.

The purpose of the canceled meeting, according to Kelly, was to canvass actors on their priorities as part of a larger process of discussing working conditions with the country's Screen Production and Development Assn. Kelly told THR that that process had been moving forward well.

In contrast, she described the "Hobbit" dispute as "fundamentally, an employer resisting unionization."

The NZAE-SPADA talks are apparently independent of the Hobbit dispute, even though evidently prompted by the Middle Earth dust- up. In a press release, NZAE said "the discussions between SPADA and NZ Equity have no application to the production of The Hobbit and the contracting of performers on The Hobbit is in no way contingent on the outcome of those discussions."

NZAE is a unit of Australia's Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which led some workers to object to perceived interference from New Zealand's larger neighbor. Kelly responded that many performers work in both countries, "so a Trans Tasman union makes sense."

The organizers' public face during the dispute has shifted from MEAA's Simon Whipp to NZAE's Frances Walsh, and most recently to Kelly.

It's difficult to parse the degree of local support for the unionization efforts, with partisans on each side making widely differing claims. All of this occurs against a backdrop of very different national politics, however: Australia is led by a Labor Party government, New Zealand by a center-right National Party.

Coincidentally, 22,000 workers rallied across New Zealand on Wednesday in a multi-union show of support for workers' rights generally.

Loss of the two-part Hobbit would be an enormous blow to the Kiwi government and the nation's entertainment industry. The country's prime minister, John Key, warned last week that "if you can't make The Hobbit here, frankly, what movies are you going to make here?"

The unionization dispute first erupted into public view when English-speaking actors' unions around the world issued "do not work" orders against Hobbit in solidarity with local organizing efforts.

Pip Bulbeck in Sydney contributed to this report.