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Actors Equity speech delivered at the Ak Screen Summit

Speech to Screen Industry Summit

Jeff Szusterman, Vice-President: Equity New Zealand

14 November 2013

(Speech delivered at 2:30pm on 14/11/2013)

Tena Koutou Tena Koutou Tena Koutou Katoa

Thank you for inviting Equity to address this meeting. I am Jeff Szusterman, Vice-President of Equity New Zealand.

Workers in the film and television industry are currently facing a significant crisis with the worst downturn in at least a decade, maybe even two decades.

Much of this is due to the high Kiwi dollar and the competitive incentives offered by other countries like South Africa and the UK that are leading to the shifting of major foreign productions like Avatar to other bases.

And there is no doubt that these are the key reasons that performers, crew, technicians and other film workers find themselves out of work and many of us are having to reconsider the careers we have chosen.

However, I think it's important to take a step back and take stock of how we got to this point. The problem started when successive governments decided to rely too much on foreign productions to create an industrial base for the audiovisual sector, rather than developing a truly local production industry that sustains local businesses and workers into the long term. Government policies have shaped today's industry into one whose on-going health and success relies almost completely on the financial whims of US studios and the inherently unstable and highly competitive runaway production market.

NZ Equity and its members know all too well the political sway the international production companies and studios have had over the government, and the impact that this has had on our working lives. These fair weather friends have only ever had the bottom line in mind when choosing to come to the country. The result of the National Government's cosying up to Hollywood is not only a failure to ensure ongoing work for New Zealand performers and crew but also a fundamental undermining of workers' rights.

Now don't get me wrong. Equity remains steadfast in its support of incentives for foreign productions and, where reasonable, these should be adjusted to assist this important sector. Equity like everyone else wants to see as much production in New Zealand as possible and very much welcomes large big budget projects. However, as many of the organisations present here today have said in the past, overseas productions should supplement our local production industry.

Equity believes the goal of all the incentives should be to help grow a sustainable local film and television community. By offering such low incentives, the government has effectively taken New Zealand out of the competition for big budget offshore productions. Government could have compensated for the loss of jobs caused by this through allocating funds to the creation of local drama productions, but has failed to do so. This - despite repeated requests - especially from organisations like Nga Aho Whakaari, who have lobbied tirelessly for years for more funding to be channelled to local productions that tell our indigenous stories.

So now we have a very poorly structured incentive scheme which is failing to attract offshore productions, and an underfunded local industry. The result is the current jobs crisis in the screen industry.

Many of you would be familiar with the recent introduction of the "Hobbit" Laws. These laws force workers in the film and television industry to be contractors, unable to collectively bargain and benefit from all the terms, conditions and protections that workers enjoy in all other NZ industries. This attack on our livelihoods has been a major blow. The National government also introduced fundamental changes to the immigration laws in the television and film industry; the result of which has been that producers have been given carte blanche to import as many overseas artists as they wish - replacing New Zealand performers. No checks, no balances, no local market testing at all - producers are no longer obliged to audition New Zealand performers. One particularly grievous example involved a high profile foreign production stating that they would not hire Maori actors in lead roles because there were "no Maori looking people in America."

Equity believes that a future government must rescind the Hobbit employment laws, and we are pleased that Labour and the Greens have already undertaken to do so if elected. Equity also believes that government must reinvigorate the immigration process to ensure that NZ workers are given a reasonable opportunity to gain employment on productions made in their own country and the tax system must be adjusted to support workers who are unfairly impacted by the boom and bust cycle of the industry.

Any increase in the incentive scheme should be conditional on this. A higher incentive could be offered to offshore companies who agree to hire certain percentages of Kiwi actors, crew and directors and others. The incentive could be further increased for companies who agree to do their post-production here.

Offering an unconditional incentive with the belief that the money will eventually trickle down and benefit everyone will not be helpful at this point.

Nga mihi.

ENDS

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