Disney threatened to abandon NZ

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 10:10 27/02/2013

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Increasingly toxic relations between the actors union and Hollywood movie companies also led to a threat by Disney to abandon New Zealand as a location, newly released Hobbit documents confirm.

Disney warned Film New Zealand that it might not bring future productions to New Zealand because it viewed actions by Actors Equity as an attempt to delay temporary work visas for overseas actors.

A 2010 briefing paper to Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee said Disney had tried to obtain temporary work visas to bring child and teenage actors to New Zealand for the US production Avalon High.

The document was released among a tranche of papers related to a 2010 employment law change in response to Warner Brothers demands after a stoush with Actors Equity.

"Actors Equity requested that Disney supply the names of all New Zealanders who auditioned in the casting process and the reasons why each individual was not cast," the document says.

The actors union has a role in the issuing of temporary work visas by supplying letters of non-objection for non-New Zealand actors cast in a production.

Its involvement is designed to ensure New Zealanders get an opportunity to work on productions.

Disney told Film New Zealand it was not prepared to release the names and reasons why actors were not cast and it raised "significant privacy and reputational concerns for the actors involved".

Disney alleged that Actors Equity had threatened to take 10 days to process and consider applications for actors in future, to establish whether there had been a bona fide casting process.

This would have "serious implications" for Disney's production schedule, officials warned.

Disney had warned that it would not bring future productions to New Zealand.

By the time ministers were briefed on the issue the problem had been resolved and the Department of Labour advised that there was a process for circumventing the actors union, by getting the Associate Minister of Immigration to approve individual visa applications.

This had happened several times, officials said.

But they flagged concerns that production companies such as Disney were becoming increasingly frustrated by the processes involved in securing temporary work visas for overseas actors and this might cause them to abandon New Zealand.

The documents, which the government had previously refused to release, show relations between movie-makers and the actors union had turned increasingly toxic, with Hobbit producer Sir Peter Jackson describing one union official as "a snake".

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Jackson said Cabinet minister Gerry Brownlee was "played like a fool" by Simon Whipp, a former director of Australian union Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA).

"I really can't [take] much more of this toxic nonsense," Jackson said.

"All I want to do is make films! I haven't been able to think about the movie for three weeks."

Jackson said yesterday the papers reflected the "intense stress we, as film-makers, were under finding the future of our films suddenly under threat by unjustified industrial action".

Whipp stood down from the MEAA last year.

The documents related to the negotiations in October 2010, when Warner Bros Studios threatened to take the films offshore.

The threat came amid warnings of a union threat to boycott the Hobbit films, prompting claims from film studios that a law change was needed.

On October 27 2010, Prime Minister John Key announced the law change, together with added tax concessions for Warner Brothers.

Yesterday's release also confirmed Jackson told Brownlee that a threat to boycott The Hobbit by a film union was being withdrawn days before Weta companies co-founder Sir Richard Taylor led a protest to Parliament urging that the threat be lifted.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly has long claimed that the Government knew the threat of boycott was lifted long before it let on, in an attempt to build a sense of crisis.

"They withheld this paragraph because it shows they [the Government and Jackson] knew . . . well before Warners came to town that the boycott was lifted, and they maintained the fiction that it was still on," she said.

Brownlee dismissed the claims yesterday as "ridiculous".

- © Fairfax NZ News

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