Newly Released 'Hobbit' Documents Reveal Details of Nasty Union Dispute

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
 Warner Bros. Pictures

The New Zealand government has released 41 pages of previously confidential documents relating to a 2010 attempt to unionize actors Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. The documents offer an unusual glimpse behind the scenes of a nasty public dispute that ended in a stinging defeat for the local actors union -- and in a stunning outcome for the country’s government, which ended up paying Warner Bros. an additional $25 million in tax incentives and other fees to quell the threat that the production might be moved to another country.

The government also pushed through legislation that effectively makes it impossible to unionize motion picture production in the country.

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The document disclosure came in response to a Jan. 31 ruling by New Zealand’s ombudsman, a government official, who ordered the release over the objections of Warner Bros.’ New Line unit, director-producer Jackson and two government ministers.

Many of the documents are emails between Jackson and Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee.

In one message, to the country’s attorney general, Jackson and his wife and producing partner, Fran Walsh, describe themselves as “not anti-union” and add that they are “very proud and loyal members of three Hollywood Unions -- the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild. We have always supported the Screen Actors Guild.” (The Producers Guild is not actually a union.)

But a couple weeks later, in an Oct. 15, 2010, email to Brownlee, Jackson denounces union organizer Simon Whipp: “He has played you like a fool. Unfortunately, you engaged with a snake, who now feels quite fearless. He is in revenge mode, intent on inflicting as much damage as he can, to our film, to our film industry, to our country.”

Jackson also referred to the unionization effort as “toxic nonsense.”

Complicating the dispute from the start was the fact that the local actors union, NZ Actors Equity, is a subsidiary of an Australian union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance.

Jackson said, “In the end, this is not about Actors Equity, not is it about The Hobbit. It is about an Australian trade union making a blatant play to take a controlling hand in the NZ film industry -- for their own political and financial gain.”

Left unremarked by Jackson was the fact that Warner Bros. isn’t based in New Zealand, either.

In a statement this week, Jackson said he hoped the document release would “put to rest the unfounded conspiracy theories that sought to characterize these events as a Hollywood studio dictating terms to a sovereign government -- a charge that is as spurious now as it was then.”

That comment isn’t consistent with what played out in 2010, when Prime Minister John Key said that Warners was asking for legislative change and additional money as a condition of keeping the Hobbit shoot in New Zealand.

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“I think it’s fair to say on the financial side there’s a fair bit of hardball being played on both sides,” Key said at the time. He added, “We have the capacity to move a little bit, but we don’t have the capacity to write out checks that we can’t afford to cash.

“In the end,” he said then, “money talks in Hollywood. That’s just the way it works.”

In addition, Brownlee said at the time that he would meet with Warners representatives when they arrived in New Zealand in order to “see what their requirements might be.”

Nor was Warner Bros. the only studio pressuring the country’s government. Another released document from 2010 -- a government memo not Hobbit-related -- indicates that Disney “advised Film New Zealand” that if Actors Equity did not change its procedures for responding to requests for visas for foreign actors, “Disney is unlikely to continue with plans to bring future productions to New Zealand.”

The Hobbit unionization effort burst into public view in September 2010. After quieter attempts to resolve matters had gotten nowhere, NZ Actors Equity enlisted the assistance of an international federation of actors unions, whose member unions -- including SAG, AFTRA and U.S. Actors Equity -- slapped a “do not work” alert on the project.

Jackson charged then that the union action risked driving the project out of the country, a stance he reiterated shortly before the film’s world premiere about three months ago in Wellington.

NZAE vp Phil Darkins disagreed. “When virtually every performers union on the planet says, ‘We won’t sign on,’ where on Earth are you going to take your production?” he said at a conference in November.

Nonetheless, the affair ended with Warner Bros. extracting an additional $25 million in incentives and advertising funds from the island nation and securing emergency passage of anti-union legislation, apparently negotiated directly between the government and key Warners executives including New Line president Toby Emmerich and Warner Home Entertainment president Kevin Tsujihara, who becomes Warner Bros. CEO effective March 1.

The document requests were filed by NZ Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly and Brent Edwards of Radio New Zealand.

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Email: jhandel99@gmail.com

Twitter: @jhandel

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