October 22, 2010


When this whole hoppalah first broke, I thought about writing a quick blog entry on it. Ultimately, and obviously, I decided not to. I got pretty worked up about the situation, as anyone who had a conversation with me about it at the time could tell you. So why didn’t I post my thoughts on it then? I kinda decided I didn’t really care enough. Not about the situation, but about The Hobbit itself. The film has already had such a long, tortuous process what with rights issues, MGM shitting the bed, losing a director, let alone that the final Rings film came out seven years ago. I felt the film’s time had come and gone. I also had a hope that Sir Peter would make something else, that he wouldn’t actually return to Middle Earth.

So, why am I posting something now? Well, for one thing, the whole situation has heated up this week with the Prime Minister (the Prime Minister!) signalling a possible law change. I think what everyone is realising is not only could NZ lose The Hobbit, but our film industry. Anyway, I wanted to get my thoughts out of my head and out there, just to… well, just to get them out there. In this post I’m going to try and not take a side, though I have a pretty definite side I come down on. I am someone who is barely on the peripherals of the NZ film industry, and I know people working in both sides of the equation. What follows is by no means a complete run down of the situation, but rather me gathering my thoughts on it.

The most important point of this whole debacle seems to be this: the NZ Actor’s Equity is not a union and, under NZ law, cannot be a union as actors are considered independent contractors. Thus, they cannot make a collective agreement. In the case of The Hobbit, as Jackson stated in his first press release on the issue, NZ actors would be getting a pretty generous deal, including residuals. Perhaps still not as good as their Hollywood counterparts, but certainly better than nothing. The specifics of the deal are, of course, kept under wraps. But if NZ actors really want a better deal in the NZ film and TV industry, The Hobbit is not the film to target.

So why target The Hobbit? And why now in the pre-production process? Why has this not been discussed earlier in the whole, drawn out development? Has this been something that has been bubbling away in the background for some time? Or was this action kicked of by del Toro departing? The Australian “parent” union, the MPEAA, has stated that high-profile Rings actors like Sir Ian McKellen, hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett support the boycott. But I haven’t found any such declaration from them or their publicists. These are questions I (and everyone else I am sure) would dearly love answers to, but will never get.

If NZ actors (as apparently represented by NZ Actor’s Equity, though the actual numbers of actors signed up with them is open to debate) really want a fair deal for productions made in NZ they need to be targeting the law and NZ producers. The Hobbit films, like the Lord of the Rings films before them, are not NZ films. They’re based on books by an Englishman and funded by American studios. The main reason they were ever made here, the only reason that New Zealand is considered Middle Earth, is down to Peter Jackson. If Actor’s Equity are thinking of claiming some sort of moral high ground they should know, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the American studios would, in Hollywood morals come cheap.

The Hobbit moving overseas would be disastrous for NZ; there is no doubt about it. There has already been considerable investment, both in terms of money and in terms of people’s time and work. Even if the films stay here though, and who knows what that will take, the damage to NZ’s filming reputation may already be done.

The NZ film industry, in its present state, cannot survive without the input of the Hollywood studios. The industry on its own is simply too small to accommodate all the actors and crew that are now out there. If Jackson and The Hobbit go overseas (London apparently looking attractive) what chances are there that the Avatar sequels would be made here? Or any other big Hollywood film? Or TV series? Would they consider NZ for a new Xena or Power Rangers? Why would they risk it? Would the infrastructure even be here anymore?

What we’re seeing now is both sides becoming more entrenched and a lot of poisonous information, disinformation and misinformation spread around. I’m not going to theorise on conspiracy theories involving the MPEAA, international actor’s unions, the studios, spider-men from Mars or anything else of the sort. I don’t have enough of a line on that and I find if you start with the conspiracy theories it can be very difficult to stop. Jackson is understandably upset; I don’t see him as talking about leaving New Zealand lightly. At the same time, the famously publicity shy Jackson team, has spoken out quite a bit (and quite angrily) about this issue. The appearance of Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly has me a little baffled. She doesn’t seem to fully understand the situation, and how the film industry works and is different to regular trades. I understand her siding with the actors in working for a better deal for them, but what about all the other people involved on these films? The technicians, the set-dressers etc. Are they not covered by the CTU? Or is it because they’re happy being independent contractors? Her claim that a Wellington meeting of Actors Equity members had to be called off due to protesting technical workers – citing safety concerns because they were like a “lynch mob” – is groundless bullshit. I a) don’t really see a group of computer geeks and designers starting a rumble and b) I could easily see a situation where Kelly would be organising a similar protest mob of workers who are about to lose their jobs.

NZ actors are right in wanting to get a fairer deal for themselves, and I can understand that. But the way they went about it – by targeting a blockbuster international film – may not have been the smartest way to do it. By the same token Jackson has been pretty vociferously angry about the actions of Actors Equity and MPEAA and this hasn’t helped calm things down any. Again, I can understand his frustration – he brought these films here and just when it was all finally coming together, it may have all come undone due to the actions of a New Zealand group.

I guess, aside from the situation itself, the thing that got me the most riled up in the first place was the poor reporting on the issue done by the NZ media. They were quick to side with Actors Equity at first and the only place I could first read Jackson’s initial statement, in its entirety, was on an American entertainment website. The NZ media took whole passages from that statement out of context and only helped to distort the issue. And because of that, because people mistakenly believed Jackson was “threatening” to take the films overseas, people were getting pissed off at Peter Jackson, saying how he should pay out of his own money. How he’s made out like a king from these films, so why shouldn’t he spread some of that wealth around? Yes, Jackson has done well. But that's from his own hard work. It’s that famous tall poppy syndrome kiwi’s do so depressingly well.

I hope against hope that tensions will subside and things can be worked out. As we head into the long Labour Weekend here in NZ, I cannot help but appreciate the irony.

Other links you may want to read:
The Council of Trade Unions statement
MGMs woes
Decent opinion piece
A blog entry from a techie involved


  1. Thank you, Andy, for pointing out the role of the NZ media distorting the whole thing! I agree wholeheartedly on that. Stuff has been quite bad at fearmongering the NZ public.

    As a unionist, I would never take part in an anti-union action (such as signing the anti-boycott petition or the anti-Equity march). That said, I'm abstaining from making any decision or comment about the whole situation.

  2. I never joined the union/equity, as the Australian reps I spoke with seemed to be more keen on bullying and pushing the NZ'ers into pay battles that weren't required at the time (I have never been underpaid, or paid at anything resembling scale, and they tried to tell me I was, and after discussing the figures, they shut up.)

    I just generally had a bad feeling about them, and I agree that The Hobbit is the wrong film to target, especially as I imagine the pay would be fairly decent for the project, anyway. NZ Actors need to unfortunately take much less than their Hollywood counterparts, and anyone who thinks that's wrong is delusional about our current place in the industry.

    And poor Peter. Tall Poppy syndrome still alive and well, I see.

  3. I think you have got to the crux of the matter. Whatever grievances actors might have, "The Hobbit" production was absolutely the wrong target for airing these grievances. The vast reservoir of affection most New Zealanders have for Peter Jackson has not just been built up because he is a fantastic film-maker who has won a swag of Oscars. He has ensured a huge infrastructure for making films could be built and maintained in our little city-village which is the envy of the world at large. He is, by all accounts, a benevolent employer, who sings the praises of his employees and their talent.

    The world wants this film made, and I would say, most want it made in New Zealand so let us hope it stays that way.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. It is all quite a bit of a to do, isn't it? Glad to have the feedback, especially without any targeted bashing.