'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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