New Zealand Official Orders ‘Hobbit’ Document Release

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Bilbo Running in Field - H 2012
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Bilbo Running in Field - H 2012

Warner Bros.’ New Line unit warns that disclosure of sensitive communications between the company and the government would be a “major disincentive” to future production in the country.

Ruling on requests filed in the wake of a 2010 attempt to unionize actors on The Hobbit, a New Zealand official has effectively ordered the release of confidential communications between New Line, Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films and government ministers, all of which opposed the unionization attempt as well as the document requests.

The ruling quotes New Line as saying that some of the documents reflect the company’s “negotiations and innermost thinking, including certain strategic decisions, legal and personal opinions, offers from third party governments and other private information."

STORY: 'Hobbit' Affair Still Rankles New Zealand Unions

The Jan. 31 ruling, by the country’s Ombudsman, is styled as a recommendation, but the recommendation matures on approximately March 1 into a “public duty” imposed on the government. Thus, documents will apparently be disclosed by that date, absent extraordinary action to the contrary by Queen Elizabeth’s representative in New Zealand, the Governor-General.

The objection by New Line included a warning, as quoted in the ruling: “If the government is not willing to adequately protect this sensitive information from disclosure, this will operate as a major disincentive to motion picture studios as well as local and foreign talent -- to utilize New Zealand as a location for future productions.”

A studio spokesperson declined to comment.

Wingnut was also quoted in the ruling as being highly critical of possible release of documents: “I can categorically assure you that if the above information was released and a similar situation occur in the future, neither myself nor Wingnut Films would be inclined to help the Government again with such a candid level of advice and opinion." The ruling did not indicate whether “I” referred to Jackson.

In a partial victory for the government, the Ombudsman declined to order release of a 2010 opinion by the government’s in-house legal advisors, despite the fact that the document had been disclosed to Jackson and New Line parent Warner Bros. That report, written by the Crown Law department, formed the legal justification for the government’s decision to weigh in on the side of the studio and Jackson -- and against the union, New Zealand Actors Equity, which was attempting to organize local actors on The Hobbit.

The unionization effort 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, 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 two months ago in Wellington.

NZAE vice president 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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