Jackson fights to save Hobbit

FIGHTING THE UNION: Sir Peter Jackson doesn't want New Zealand to be 'humiliated on the world stage'.
FIGHTING THE UNION: Sir Peter Jackson doesn't want New Zealand to be 'humiliated on the world stage'.

Sir Peter Jackson says he is fighting to save The Hobbit films, thousands of jobs and the New Zealand film industry in the face of a threatened actors' boycott orchestrated by an "Australian bully boy" union.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) says Hollywood stars Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving support a boycott of the film because actors may be employed on inferior non-union contracts.

The three A-list actors are reported to be taking part in the Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit.

In a four-page statement last night, the usually media-shy Jackson said he was a "very proud and loyal member" of three Hollywood unions and "not anti-union in the slightest".

He always honoured actors' union conditions if they were union members, and the MEAA had a clear agenda "based on money and power".

"I can't see beyond the ugly spectre of an Australian bully-boy using what he perceives as his weak Kiwi cousins to gain a foothold in this country's film industry. They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance.

"I feel growing anger at the way this tiny minority is endangering a project that hundreds of people have worked on over the last two years, and the thousands about to be employed for the next four years, [and] the hundreds of millions of Warner Brothers dollars that is about to be spent in our economy."

Losing The Hobbit would leave New Zealand "humiliated on the world stage" and "Warners would take a financial hit that would cause other studios to steer clear of New Zealand", Jackson said.

"If The Hobbit goes east [East Europe in fact], look forward to a long, dry, big-budget movie drought in this country. We have done better in recent years with attracting overseas movies  and the Australians would like a greater slice of the pie, which begins with them using The Hobbit to gain control of our film industry."

But Sir Peter Jackson said The International Federation of Actors, which represents the world's seven major actors unions and actors in 100 countries, has told members not to act in The Hobbit until they get a union contract.

MEAA national director Simon Whipp said "all performers" were concerned about the lack of standard union contracts for the US$150 million (NZ$204m) two-part Hobbit films.

"Members of British Equity have certainly spoken to Ian McKellen about it ... In fact, we have spoken to all the performers who have been approached, or are rumoured to be involved in, the production and all have expressed strong support [for the boycott]."

A lack of union contracts had led to concern about whether The Hobbit producers would pay fees contained in a standard union contract, such as payments from DVD sales and video rentals, Mr Whipp said.

"Those are the things all of us are concerned about and differentiate New Zealand, from a performer's perspective, from working almost anywhere else in the English-speaking world."

An offer for union officials to travel to Los Angeles to resolve the problem was declined by the studios involved. "We have a meeting of performers in Auckland on Tuesday night to assess the situation. We think arrangements can be reached that satisfy the concerns of performers and meet the needs of the production."

Keith Barclay, New Zealand editor of Screen Hub, said the stoush could mean international actors quitting the production. "At worst  from a NZ perspective  it would see the production fold or, more likely, move overseas," he wrote in Screen Hub.

Meanwhile, South Pacific Pictures chief executive John Barnett says the Australian union's claims were duplicitous and inaccurate and made by an organisation with no legal standing in New Zealand.

"The MEAA has been struck off the register (of NZ incorporated societies) for failing to file any reports in the last three years, which is one reason that the production company can't enter into any agreement with it.

"The Australian union has absolutely no interest in what happens in New Zealand."

The claim that actors were at the mercy of production companies was a complete misrepresentation as there were absolute guarantees about working conditions which had been in place for the past 15-20 years, Mr Barnett told Radio New Zealand.

Mr Barnett agreed that losing the films to Eastern Europe was a real risk as production company MGM didn't want any trouble and just wanted to get it done.

- with NZPA

The Dominion Post