'Hobbit' Affair Still Rankles New Zealand Unions

An attempt to unionize actors on the film boomeranged, but now negotiations proceed between New Zealand producers and the country's actors union.
An attempt to unionize actors on the film boomeranged, but now negotiations proceed between New Zealand producers and the country's actors union.

As fans of The Hobbit count down the final minutes to the film’s premiere in Wellington, some New Zealand activists are still bitter about the outcome of a failed unionization attempt in 2010, even as NZ Actors Equity is finally making progress in negotiations with the country’s producers association.

Meanwhile, the government continues to resist publicly disclosing a key legal report, despite having apparently provided copies to Warner Bros. and producer-director Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films. That stance may change, as government officials are meeting on the matter Dec. 5, according to a local press report.

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“I’m bloody angry,” NZAE vp Phil Darkins said at a conference last week at Victoria University. Referring to New Zealand’s uniquely non-unionized film industry, he added: “New Zealand is the only English-speaking nation on the planet where professional performers ply their trade at the mercy of their lords and masters. And they are supposed to do this feeling nothing but enormous gratitude for the fact that there is even work available.”

In an e-mail to The Hollywood Reporter, a NZAE organizer struck a different note. “We're having productive discussions with SPADA,” said Anna Majavu, referring to the country’s Screen Production and Development Association, “and look forward to reaching a mutually agreeable conclusion.”

Majavu declined to disclose details, although Darkins did say at the conference that one subject under discussion was rules relating to child actors.

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

Jackson charged then that the union action risked driving the project out of the country. “The Hobbit did come very close to not being filmed here,” he reiterated this week in a Radio NZ interview.

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Darkins disagrees. “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 added flatly, “The Hobbit was never leaving New Zealand. It had nowhere to go. The International Federation of Actors made sure of that.”

Nonetheless, the affair ended with Warner Bros. extracting an additional $25 million in incentives and advertising funds from the island nation and securing 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.

The fact that there are negotiations now with SPADA is a victory of sorts for the union. That’s because the negotiations are happening notwithstanding a government legal report that purportedly says collective bargaining on behalf of actors in New Zealand is illegal because actors are independent contractors, not employees.

So far, though, that report has still not been publicly released, despite an opinion by the country’s ombudsman that the release to Wingnut means that it should be. That official is set to meet Dec. 5 with the country’s attorney general and economic development minister regarding the matter. New Zealand’s Council of Trade Unions has continued to seek a copy of the report, but in an interview with THR, CTU president Helen Kelly was not entirely optimistic.

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“If it is released, all bets are on for Christmas Eve,” she said.

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