22 Oct 2010

Warning Hobbit unrest putting NZ industry at risk

10:44 pm on 22 October 2010

The recent union boycott of The Hobbit is putting other film and television projects in New Zealand in danger, a film producers' association warns.

The Government, the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) and director Sir Peter Jackson are fighting to keep The Hobbit in New Zealand after an international actors' boycott alarmed studio backers.

Executives from Warner Brothers, which is financing the $500 million Hobbit movies, will visit New Zealand next week to decide whether to move the filming overseas.

On Friday, Warner Bros said the actions of unions has caused it substantial disruption and damage, forcing it for the first time to consider other locations.

A standoff between Sir Peter's production company Wingnut Films and New Zealand Actors' Equity over a collective agreement led to the international boycott, which has since been lifted.

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and Actors' Equity maintain they have now done all they can to make sure the projects are filmed in New Zealand.

But SPADA chief executive Penelope Borland says the damage done by the union work ban is profound and has put the entire industry in New Zealand at risk.

SPADA says it understands a total of $100 million worth of projects - including two major films and one television series - could lose their US financing because of the dispute.

"The damage is profound to the New Zealand industry. Virtually anything with US finance is on hold or in jeopardy," Ms Borland says. "This is millions and millions of dollars worth of production and the whole future of our industry."

Film New Zealand says it does not know of projects under threat but it has been contacted by a number of overseas film producers about the dispute.

Actors' Equity says it has given assurances it will not disrupt The Hobbit further and can't do any more to retain the film, while the CTU says there is now nothing to stop filming happening in New Zealand.

Actors' Equity industrial organiser Frances Walsh says all the union ever wanted to do was negotiate conditions for performers working on The Hobbit and it has been surprised by everything that has happened.

E-mails contradict Warners on Hobbit boycott

A series of e-mails appears to show Warner Bros knew five days ago that the union boycott of The Hobbit would be ended.

In a statement on Friday, the studio said reports that an international actors' boycott was lifted by unions a number of days ago, and that Warner Bros asked to delay this announcement, were false.

It says it was not until Thursday night that confirmation of the boycott being lifted was received from the US-based Screen Actors Guild and New Zealand Actors' Equity. The studio said it was still awaiting retractions from other guilds.

However the e-mails, between actors' union representatives in Australia and the US and a senior lawyer for Warner Bros in Los Angeles, show the Australian union MEAA, which was behind the international boycott a month ago, was negotiating a news release with Warners welcoming the end of the ban.

The messages were sent back and forth and forth between the studio and the unions on Monday night, and it appears a statement was intended for release on Monday (LA time).

It remains unclear why the statement was not released, and at exactly what point it faltered.

Director Sir Peter Jackson has issued a statement saying he never saw the e-mails, but says it was Warner Bros that was unhappy with the wording and that put a stop to it.

In any case, Sir Peter says, the damage was done a month ago when the industrial action was started, and the film's future in New Zealand rests on the decisions the studio executives make next week, when they come to New Zealand.

Employment law

Earlier, Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee indicated the Government may be prepared to clarify employment laws to try to keep the production in New Zealand.

He told Morning Report the Government would consider the issues raised in a Supreme Court case.

"In other words, can we determine the difference between an employee and a contractor in a way that makes clear that the sort of industrial action that has been threatened by the union can't be carried through."

Mr Brownlee said New Zealand actors need to distance themselves from the Australian-based Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), which is linked to New Zealand Actors' Equity.

He said there is still complete mistrust between Warner Bros and the MEAA and even though the boycott has been lifted, the Australian union needs to publicly announce it has stopped industrial action.

"Even though they've lifted (the ban) there's still got to be a reasonable ground for concern that part way through they might go completely wobbly at the knees."

He reiterated that extra Government tax breaks for the film are not on the table.

On Friday, the Australian union said it has now done everything it can to ensure the films are made in New Zealand.

MEAA director Simon Whipp says the union issued statements to confirm all actor bans had been lifted on Thursday and has offered to give written guarantees it will not further disrupt filming. He says the union wants The Hobbit shot in New Zealand.

Tourism dollars

A Tourism Industry Association spokesperson, Ann-Marie Johnson, says The Hobbit is far too valuable an opportunity to lose.

Ms Johnson says the Ministry of Tourism in 2004 estimated that, after the last of the Lord of the Rings movies had been released, more than 11,000 people visited New Zealand as a direct result of the films and had spent $32.8 million.