Hobbit storm spills out of teacup

20:04, Oct 21 2010

What am I missing about The Hobbit dispute? Every way I look at it, there seems to be a reasonable deal on the table for actors, has been for weeks, and the only thing stopping it getting made here is a global power struggle between international studios and the Anglo-Saxon world's actors' unions.

The New Zealand film industry is a bit player in this, yet it could be the casualty.

It seems an almost wilful obtuseness on both sides of the international fisticuffs has encouraged Warner Bros to check for Plan Bs. It's found a few, and suddenly the film that was going to be shot here "now has to be won back", as one senior industry executive put it yesterday.

Look at each of the supposed big issues.

First, the boycott. Its existence was first denied - in New Zealand anyway - by local Actors' Equity president Jennifer Ward-Lealand on TV3's The Nation on October 2, a full three weeks ago.

"We have never said there's a boycott ever. All we have asked for in anything is a meeting and until we get the meeting for our members to hold on signing. That is all," she said, before virtually disappearing from public view ever since.

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However, Equity did get the meeting, and the terms of a deal to take industrial action off the table until at least next April were agreed with the Screen Production and Development Association last weekend. Too little, too late, perhaps, but as long as three weeks ago, there really didn't seem too much to argue about.

Ward-Lealand had made it clear actors weren't seeking collective bargaining, but standard terms in a contract for services, but no-one seemed to hear that and the big lie kept growing that Equity wanted a collective contract for international films.

We also know that Warner Bros was offering to add a new source of income for actors to the contracts on offer, called "residual payments" that accumulate on all kinds of after-sales, and can be large if the movie's a hit. Ward- Lealand described it on October 2 as "a great step".

In the same interview, she also admitted Equity had been briefly deregistered last month for failing to file annual returns three years running. It's a sure sign of a weak and pliable organisation when its governance sucks that badly, let alone when it's operating as a branch of the Australian actors' union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

Among those in the crowd of anti-unionisation film technicians and production company owners who marched to Parliament on Wednesday evening, many held placards condemning as a malign influence Simon Whipp. If so, the Sydney-based professional head of the MEAA and, therefore, technically, the boss of Actors' Equity here, has been invisible.

When things turned super- septic this week, Equity turned to the star power of Robyn Malcolm and the president of the Council of Trade Unions, Helen Kelly, to conduct media interviews.

Ms Kelly, who seemed until then to have been playing chaperone to the weak local union, suddenly accused Warner Bros of seeking extra government handouts, a charge of which there is no evidence whatsoever.

Rather, the global unions have tried to play their Kiwi cousins in the name of solidarity and have damn near achieved one of their objectives: to make New Zealand a less attractive place to do big- budget films. Fran Walsh yesterday talked up available studios in London, used for Harry Potter, as a realistic alternative. Those jobs would go to English actors.

Job done, if you're the English actors' union.

There's something cynical about Sir Ian McKellen joining the international boycott, which did exist and is only just being lifted now, when he knows he'll be in The Hobbit, no matter where it's shot. Or is he going to withhold his labour in solidarity with his Kiwi colleagues if it shifts to somewhere else? Could Gandalf really be from Mordor?

The New Zealand industry has bitten back. The backlash was strong before Wednesday night's "flash-mob" style march, which itself should be proof to Warner Bros that there's strong and stroppy support for the kind of film industry labour relations that the studio values here.

So who is whipping this up? Simply put, both Sir Peter Jackson and the unions. Sir Peter's intemperate outburst about Aussie plots put the issue on the media front-burner in the first place. However, the international English-speaking actors' unions had already made their gameplan clear by then.

The scene is set for a politically charged and, sadly, deserving bout of union-bashing - especially if the production goes overseas.

Pattrick Smellie is co-founder and editor of Business Desk.

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