The Hobbit's whipping boy talks

IMAGE ISSUE: A protester carries a banner that depicts Simon Whipp during a march in Wellington.
IMAGE ISSUE: A protester carries a banner that depicts Simon Whipp during a march in Wellington.

The Australian union boss at the centre of the controversy was chased by all and sundry but he spoke only to Kim Knight.

Protesting film technicians cast him as Satan.

Simon Whipp, the Australian unionist blamed for derailing The Hobbit, the $670 million Warner Bros movie project headed by Sir Peter Jackson, was depicted on placards last week as the devil.

But on the day it was confirmed all actor boycotts were off, Whipp told the Sunday Star-Times all performers ever wanted was a meeting with producers.

"If the production leaves New Zealand, I have no doubt we'll be blamed, but that would be wrong. All we ever sought was a meeting, and we're confident if we had met we would have been able to find a solution.

"We have given an unconditional guarantee there will be no industrial issue with the actors on this movie ... I don't know what else we can do," Whipp said from Auckland before boarding his flight back to Sydney on Friday.

Whipp is the national director of the Australia-based Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance. NZ Actors' Equity has been an independent branch of that organisation since 2006, after 800 performers returned an 80 percent vote in favour of opening an autonomous local office.

In the 2006 Census, 588 people identified themselves as performers. Actors Equity has 625 members.

Whipp said the campaign The Hobbit had been caught up in was part of a bigger effort to give those actors the same rights as those in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

"For most people who sign a contract it's as binding for one party as the other... for New Zealand film and TV contracts that hasn't been the case."

Whipp said that if a Kiwi performer wanted to quit a production, producers could bring legal proceedings to stop them – and sue for damages.

"But if the producer changed their mind about a production, all they're obliged to do is give a day's notice ... that's standard in New Zealand."

He cited a theatre company contract stating that an actor unable to work would be financially liable for their replacement.

"Not only do they not get paid if they are sick, but they have to pay for their replacement. That's not fair, and it shouldn't be part of anyone's contract."

Whipp said Kiwi conditions were eroded after the Employment Contracts Act and the fall of their union. Latest statistics showed the average actor's wage was $28,500 a year.

"In America, for a 12-hour day, a performer will be paid $US1500 ... we have a rule that if an American production comes to Australia, they have to pay the same rates as if it were being made in the US."

It was not a question of whether the film industry could sustain those rates here.

"It's not the New Zealand industry. It's a studio production," Whipp said.

"We're not asking for US$1500, but we are asking for conditions that more accurately reflect the international environment. They said they couldn't enter into an agreement with us under New Zealand law, but we provided legal advice that indicated there were other ways of doing things...and we were happy to go down that road."

Whipp said unions had not specifically targeted The Hobbit. "We've sought to negotiate with the producers for Outrageous Fortune, This is Not My Life, The Cult – all of whom have told us they have no interest in talking to us."

Whipp said he had a long history of dealing with threats that a production would leave the country. "In my experience, they are rarely carried through."

He said The Hobbit producers wanted to know arrangements were going to be settled while the film was made here. "We've given them that assurance".

Actors' Equity organiser Frances Walsh confirmed there would be no action. She said negotiations with the Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand on a standard set of conditions were progressing.

However, as far The Hobbit was concerned: "We've pulled up stumps and let it go through to the keeper."

Warner Bros executives are expected in New Zealand this week to discuss where The Hobbit will eventually film.

Sunday Star Times