Cunliffe: Ugly underbelly of Middle Earth

SIMON CUNLIFFE
Last updated 05:00 03/03/2013
hobbit

Everything in the garden is lovely: Well, no, it wasn't, documents relating to the Hobbit movie reveal.

simon cunliffe
Sunday Star-Times columnist Simon Cunliffe.

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OPINION: We are all proud inhabitants of Middle Earth. We love that the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were and are being made here. We revel in the associated glamour, bask in the reflected glory. We make a habit of spotting the hobbit on Wellington's Cuba Mall. The sense of vicarious celebrity rings our bells, sets whole towns abuzz. We celebrate the creative genius of Sir Peter Jackson even while cringing at his taste in footwear.

And while forgiving the master film-maker's pedestrian fashion sense, perhaps blinded by the wish to succeed on the world stage, the chronic need to be liked and to be told how wonderful we are, we close our eyes to some of the more unpalatable machinations required to maintain this particular fiction.

I am not entirely blameless in this, penning a column coincident with the international premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Wellington, in December. While the piece raised a number of questions to set against our collective and unalloyed euphoria, ultimately while celebrating Jackson's brilliance it more naively endorsed Prime Minister John Key's flagrant coat-tailing.

Last week, at the behest of the Ombudsman's office, the Government reluctantly released a file of documents relating to the behind-the-scenes drama played out by ministers, the film-makers, Warner Bros and others during a period of "crisis" in late 2010. On Friday, further documents were released by the Council of Trade Unions. Bit by bit, the documentary evidence accrues to reveal the forces at work behind the scenes.

And that in the court of public opinion, not everybody got a fair suck of the sav. In particular, CTU president Helen Kelly and a bunch of stroppy actors led by the likes of that tall poppy Robyn Malcolm were drenched in odium for supposedly holding the film industry, Jackson, Weta Workshops, Warner Bros, the Government, and just about anyone else you care to mention, to ransom.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it was the other way around. For the documents show that on Monday October 18, 2010, Warner Bros had accepted that there would be no blacklist on the making of the film in this country. On that date, senior executive Stephen Carroll drafted an email statement to say as much.

It began: "Newline Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM are pleased that the Screen Actors Guild, the Federation of International Actors and New Zealand Actors Equity have retracted their various Do Not Work Orders for The Hobbit."

The document drop also reveals that the Government and its ministers knew this to be the case and yet continued to give the impression that it wasn't.

Two days later, on October 20, an estimated 1500 people, mainly film technicians and associates, led by Sir Richard Taylor of Weta Workshops, mounted a high-profile demonstration on the streets of Wellington, in favour of the films going ahead and against the misguided actors supposedly threatening their enterprise and their livelihoods.

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The organisers of that event must have known by then that if there was a threat to the movie, it wasn't one perpetrated by the acting profession. Nonetheless, the sense of crisis, accompanied by a fair bit of union bashing, was allowed to build, not least by the Government.

The suspicion must now be that this was a convenient and distracting prelude to the changing of employment legislation - mainly to clarify whether actors were employees or contractors. For the following Tuesday, Key met Warner Bros and the next day it was announced that the movie would go ahead after all - much to the Government's credit.

And, surprise, surprise, despite early advice - revealed in last week's documents and advised to the film-makers by none other than Brownlee - that no change in legislation would be necessary, soon after his party rolled over and changed the law under urgency. A case of doing the bidding of an international corporation?

The effect of it all has been to curtail the ability of Kiwi actors to seek comparable deals with their peers from other countries on major international productions being made here.

Now, as was once said in jest, they probably are "Mexicans with cellphones".

There was other, more personal, fallout, too. One night at the height of the angst and confusion, actor Robyn Malcolm, at a Wellington restaurant for a meal, reportedly had to be offered protection against the anger of a group of film technicians, inflamed no doubt by the spin around the saga.

It gives me no pleasure to rain on the hobbit parade, but that's just one small snippet from the less flattering underbelly of Middle Earth.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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