Hobbit looks headed overseas

BY TOM CARDY AND KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 17:05 21/10/2010
Sir Peter Jackson
CHRIS SKELTON/Dominion Post

TROUBLED TIMES: Sir Peter Jackson talks about the problems surrounding the making of The Hobbit.

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Film workers march in Wellington to plead with actors to abandon a boycott of The Hobbit.
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Film workers march in Wellington to plead with actors to abandon a boycott of The Hobbit.

Robyn Malcolm on Hobbit dispute on Radio NZ

Richard Taylor
CRAIG SIMCOX/The Dominion Post
FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: Weta Workshop head Richard Taylor leads the 1500-strong save-The-Hobbit march.

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Sir Peter Jackson has hit back at the Council of Trade Unions' claim that he is trying to set up the actors' union to take the blame for The Hobbit going overseas.

Last night up to 1500 film technicians marched in Wellington over fears that the US$500 million film will be lost to another country.

CTU president Helen Kelly today alluded that Jackson had helped organise it.

''I couldn't believe it. It was the first time I really got very angry,'' Jackson told The Dominion Post today.

''I watched the march on TV. I wasn't there and unlike what Helen Kelly's been saying I didn't have anything to do with organising it. Suddenly I see Helen Kelly and she starts slagging off  the production. She slags off the studio [as] 'they're greedy. They're wanting this, they're wanting that, it's all engineered by them because all they are after is the money. They always intended to go. I'm thinking 'this is a legitimate march by 1000 people who are basically wondering how they are going to live for the next two years.'

''Here's Helen Kelly, who represents the workers of New Zealand, and she's trivialising the feelings of these 1000 very concerned people and supporting an Australian union. I thought 'God, what planet are we living on?'''

But Prime Minister John Key thinks The Hobbit movies can be saved and he is going to do his best to achieve that when Warner Brothers executives arrive next week.

He said today he was seriously worried about the future of the film industry if the studio moves them to another country because of union strife over conditions for New Zealand actors.

"I don't think we should write off our chances of retaining the movies," Mr Key told NZPA today.

"My concern is that if Warner Brothers deems New Zealand is not a good place to make movies, then there is a real risk other major film production companies will also believe that to be the case."

Mr Key intends meeting the studio executives to talk through the issues that concern them.

"There's work to be done and the Government hasn't given up trying to do its best to secure the movies," he said.

"This is a very successful growth area for New Zealand and to have the film industry destroyed on the back of the actions of the unions is, I think, reprehensible."

Mr Key said he understood Warner Brothers' main concern was industrial uncertainty, not the 15 percent tax break New Zealand gives to film companies.

Other countries are reported to have offered 30 percent in bids to get the movies.

"That uncertainty has been created by the actions of the unions," Mr Key said.

"Warner Brothers has already invested $100 million in The Hobbit movies so they have, historically at least, been of the view that New Zealand is a good place to make movies and it's only the actions of the unions that encouraged them to start looking at other locations."

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Kelly said there was a belief Warner Brothers had already decided to move the films to a country where it could get bigger tax incentives and pay lower wages and Jackson was trying to set the union up as the instigator.

Ms Kelly today also accused Jackson of being ''a spoilt brat'' over the issue.

Jackson said he wasn't fazed by the remark.

''What worries me are the people that were on that march and trying to do something for them. The only thing that matters now is trying to fix this."

POLICE CALLED OVER SAFETY FEARS

A meeting of actors in Auckland tonight has been cancelled out of safety fears.

NZ Actor's Equity spokeswoman Frances Walsh said the union had decided to call off the meeting due to rising tensions, including threatening behaviour towards actors from members of a protest march in Wellington last night.

Outrageous Fortune star Robyn Malcolm had to be escorted by police from inner city restaurant Matterhorn after being intimidated by technical workers.

Malcolm was met with a barrage of abuse from people gathered outside the restaurant after dining with CTU boss Helen Kelly.

Matterhorn manager Kim O'Leary said Malcolm had been with a group of actors at the restaurant, seated away from a group of protesters having a drink at the bar.

"One of [the protestors) went to the bathroom and noticed [the actors] were there," O'Leary said.

Staff then warned Malcolm about the protesters, but there was no altercation until the actors went outside.

Walsh said the union could not subject actors to that kind of behaviour and had called off the meeting in Auckland to discuss terms and conditions for actors working in New Zealand.

"There is a lot of fear and anxiety and misinformation out there," Walsh said.

"We are disappointed that a group of performers cannot come together to talk about the conditions they want to work under."

OFFSHORE

» Click here to see interactive timeline.

Sir Peter Jackson has announced The Hobbit could be taken offshore, provoking an angry response from actors. His partner, Fran Walsh, said today that Warner Brothers had a studio that would be perfect for them in the UK.

Sir Peter and the producers have been in a standoff with actors' unions who have boycotted the Lord of the Rings prequels while agitating for a collective agreement.

During the dispute there had been speculation that production could be taken overseas. Other countries had offered a one-off deal that is double New Zealand's 15 per cent tax rebate for films.

Sir Peter Jackson and Walsh said the weekend lifting of the actors union's blacklist "does nothing to help the film stay in New Zealand".

"The damage inflicted on our film industry by [the actors unions] is long since done."

The move has undermined Warner Brothers confidence in the industry "and they are now, quite rightly, very concerned about the security of their $500m investment".

"Next week Warners are coming down to New Zealand to make arrangements to move the production offshore. It appears we cannot make films in our own country even when substantial financing is available."


What would you say to Warner Brothers to get them to keep the filming of The Hobbit in New Zealand? Email your thoughts to newstips@stuff.co.nz.


Walsh, who rarely gives interviews, told National Radio this morning that the studio had been taking photos of locations in the UK following the drama surrounding the film in New Zealand.

"They have a huge studio there that Harry Potter have vacated, that they own, their ex Rolls Royce factory, that they say would be perfect for us."

She said Warners felt New Zealand was no longer a stable environment for the film, given the threat of industrial action and wanted to take it offshore.

"It is not a tax break relation situation at all. That is not a factor."

Walsh, and the film’s third co-producer Philippa Boyens, said they were now fighting to get the film back in New Zealand.

"It is now a situation of retrieving it. We are on the edge," they said.

PM SPEAKS OUT

Key said New Zealand did not need to sell  itself as the place “with the biggest subsidies in the world for films to be made here".

"Our understanding is the major impediment to The Hobbit films being made in New Zealand is the actions of the union not tax incentives," he said.

"The film grants scheme in place to support the making of The Hobbit is generous. It's no question that other countries around the world have higher schemes but there needs to be some balance.

"New  Zealand is a very good place to make movies… I think we have a strong position but industrial action from the unions and the threat of industrial action have substantially undermined the confidence Warner Brothers have in New Zealand. The Government needs to talk to them about that confidence."

Mr Key said the issue presented by Warner Brothers was not one of "dollars and cents".

UNION TRUCE OFFER

New Zealand Actors' Equity had offered six months of industrial peace that might have let The Hobbit go ahead, the Screen Producers and Directors Association has revealed.

In a case of what now appears to be too little too late, SPADA says it had negotiated "an interim agreement" whereby "any production that commences pre-production before 31 March 2011" would not be subject to industrial action by members of the actors' union, Actors' Equity.

This was to be accompanied by a request last weekend that international actors' unions also lift their boycott on signing on for The Hobbit, which has since occurred.

"We were hopeful this action, together with the green-lighting of the picture and the interim agreement between SPADA and Equity during the negotiation period would mean that The Hobbit and other productions would go ahead in New Zealand," said SPADA chief executive Penelope Borland.

The hiatus would have allowed conclusion of negotiations over the terms of the so-called "pink book", which seeks to govern the terms and conditions on which actors are employed.

However, senior industry sources said that the dispute had dragged on for long enough to allow the American backers, Warner Brothers, not only to scout potential alternative locations, but also to receive multiple highly incentivised bids from other countries.

"It was all set to be filmed in New Zealand," said one highly placed industry executive. "It's a case now of winning it back."

'WE'RE NOT EVEN THE COFFEE BUDGET'

Actors' Equity committee member Robyn Malcolm told Morning Report this morning she could not believe a request for a discussion around conditions like overtime, penalty rates and transport was enough to derail a multi-million dollar movie project.

“If it does go offshore it will have nothing to do with Actor’s Equity.

“We’re not even the coffee budget,” Malcolm said.

“Nobody wants Cate Blanchett’s salary, nobody wants that.

“The difference is I’m a hobbit, you’re a hobbit, you come from America or England and you work on the same production, side by side, and we work under completely different terms and conditions. Is that fair?”

JACKSON 'SET UP UNION' FOR BLAME

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said Warner Brothers and Sir Peter had known since the weekend that the ban on working on the movies had been lifted.

"We've obviously had a pathway to resolve this dispute which Jackson has been involved in and knows about, including that in the weekend they were told that the boycott had been lifted."

She said there was a belief Warners had already decided to move the films to a country where it could get bigger tax incentives and pay lower wages and Sir Peter was trying to set the union up to take the blame.

The union was seeking "basic terms and conditions" such as hours, breaks and overtime payments and had always been prepared to agree those as an "industry standard” rather than a collective agreement.

"New Zealand performers want the movie made here as much as anyone, but let’s get all the facts on the table about taxes, subsidies, and other issues – rather than just blaming the union for asking to meet on basic terms and conditions," she said.

WETA WORKSHOP WORRIED

Weta Workshop's Sir Richard Taylor, who organised a march attended by 1500 film workers in Wellington yesterday to plead with actors to come onboard, told Radio New Zealand that suggestions the movie was always headed offshore were insane.

“The sets that have been built… the statement that the film was always planned to be taken offshore by Peter Jackson and the studio is incorrect.”

Sir Richard said Hobbiton and the sets could not be dug up and shipped off to England.

“Why on earth would Peter Jackson and the studio invest so much in New Zealand film infrastructure to build the Hobbit here if they always planned to take it offshore?”

The intention was to make the films in New Zealand.

“Everyone that is working on the film has been moving forward with the expectation that the film is going ahead. We’ve been hired on the film for a number of months.”

He said a statement today by Kelly that the issues had been largely resolved was welcome.

“It gives me hope, I have to cling on to hope; the alternative is too dire to think about.”

HOBBITON HOLDS ITS BREATH

Russell Alexander, who owns the Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tour at Matamata, in the Waikato, said he was not at liberty to discuss anything to do with the movie. However, he said it "could be devastating" for the film industry.

"This is not just a specific Hobbit issue. It is so serious for this country, for the future of the film industry. People have to understand the broader picture.''

Matamata-Piako mayor Hugh Vercoe said he understood it was still not a foregone conclusion and the  Hobbiton movie set on the outskirts of Matamata had already come back to life in preparation for filming.

"They are coming to discuss the possibility, aren't they?'' he said.

"The [Hobbiton] farm set is ready to go and looks fantastic. But it would be a tragedy for the whole of country, as opposed to our little area, and we would certainly feel the economic impact if it didn't happen.

"But even at this last hour I am optimistic common sense will prevail and the production will continue."

- Stuff, NZPA, Dominion Post, Waikato Times, and Whangarei Leader

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