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Guest Opinion: Hobbit bullying? Whose perspective?

Hobbit bullying? Whose perspective?

By Alana Bowman

Perspective in films can make or break the artistic impact of the production. And perspective in journalism can make or break public understanding of issues - and can create a credible alternative reality just as much as the best sci-fi flick.

The perspective of The Hobbit issues presented by most of the media (I write “most” because I haven’t seen all the newspapers or TV coverage in the last couple of weeks) has been from the point of view of Sir Peter Jackson's production company and the Hollywood studios.

The Script?

Imagine if you are an employer who has lost a case to a former employee that you fought all the way to the Supreme Court and you want to do something about it. Wouldn't you dream of this outcome:

• The employees whose interests you fought against in court are demonstrating in the streets by the thousands - and demonstrating FOR you, not against you

• The employee union has promised no industrial action at all against your company

• The government is thinking of changing the law to overturn the decision that went against you

• That same government may increase taxpayer-financed rebates to your company

Whose call?

The Dominion Post front-page report on Friday was written from the anguished view of Sir Peter Jackson and Prime Minister John Key, who expressed their despair that the effect of New Zealand Actors Equity’s attempt to protect its members would cause the film’s American studios to abandon New Zealand for a better deal in another country.

Jackson was warning that the American studios may abandon New Zealand and "movie studio executives" were coming to make their decision. But who makes the decision? -

• On 4 October, TV3 reported: “In response to the union pressure, Sir Peter threatened to take filming of The Hobbit overseas to Europe.”

• On 21 October the LA Times reported: "Deteriorating relations among several performers' guilds … have prompted director Peter Jackson to say that he would move the production out of New Zealand even if the boycott is lifted....The decision on where to shoot both "Hobbit" movies will ultimately be made by those financing the pictures — which include Warner Bros., its New Line cinema unit and MGM — but with heavy input from Jackson.”

Strategic timing?

Rather than featuring the thousands of demonstrators at the Parliament rally protesting against the government’s latest de-valuing of the wage earner’s power, the DomPost chose to feature on its front page the anti-actors' union demonstration (“The Battle for Middle-Earth” ran the sub-heading).

The coverage of the labour rally appeared on page 7, with a small photo (which failed to identify the speaker addressing the crowd as mayor-elect Celia Wade-Brown, news-making in itself).

The issues?

The LA Times, on 20 October (19 October in New Zealand - the day before the pro-Jackson march), noted that SAG (US Screen Actors Guild) had withdrawn its boycott of the production : “Today, our sister union New Zealand Actors Equity issued a statement recommending all international performers’ unions rescind their member advisories on the feature film production The Hobbit," SAG said in a statement. "In light of this recommendation, Screen Actors Guild will be alerting its members that they are now free to accept engagements, under Screen Actors Guild contract terms and conditions, on The Hobbit.”

Under SAG “contract terms and conditions” – maybe that’s a problem for Peter Jackson and his production company?

Patrick Smellie, in the DomPost on 1 October, listed the union issues: “payments for dubbing credits, health and safety, hours of work, cancellations and “residuals” – a share of earnings if they turn up on, like Legolas, on a fastfood menu or in a videogame”.

On 4 October, TV3 reported that Jackson and his wife and co-producer Fran Walsh had met with Gerry Brownlee to express their views on the future of the film due to the actions of “an Australian actor’s union” (although the CTU has made clear that Equity is a New Zealand Union.) Could it have been that Jackson wanted to discuss changing the law after his production company, Three Foot Six, battled all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005 to fight an employee who finally won the determination that he was, in fact, an employee and not a contractor?

Not so surprising, then, the DomPost headline on 22 October with John Key saying "We'll change the law". Not change the law to ensure collective bargaining rights or consistent contract protections for employees working alongside each other, but to undo a Supreme Court decision that Jackson didn't like?

And if John Key does change the employment law to suit this production company, whose interests will he be serving? The American studios who are imposing the long-arm of their preferred laws on the people of New Zealand? At this rate, New Zealand will need to up the production of bananas. What the hell happened to democratic self-determination and the sovereignty of the nation?

The question for New Zealand taxpayers might also be “Who is pulling the strings?” Sir Peter, miffed that the Supreme Court had the nerve to rule against him, has found a great scapegoat in that “Australian actor’s union” (This repetition of the phrase does bring to mind the practice of actors not to say “Macbeth” out loud, but refer to “The Scottish Play”). And at the end of the day it is his decision whether the film will be made in New Zealand - and the sweetener to the deal will be a change of law, and an increase in taxpayer subsidies for an American film production?

Hooray for Hollywood?

But there is an indication in that last LA Times article about a deeper simmering problem with this production – financing. Could the current sky-high value of the NZ dollar have a part to play in this week’s negotiations?

The LA Times reported on 1 October that the “studios have nearly finalized a deal with director, producer and co-writer Peter Jackson… The one remaining hurdle is getting an official go-ahead from MGM, which is set to co-finance the movies because under a long-standing agreement it owns half the rights and controls international distribution.”

However, there was this – “Negotiations between the two sides are at a very tenuous stage because nearly bankrupt MGM needs to reach agreement among its more than 100 debt owners, which control the future of the studio. At the same time, MGM's creditors are scrambling to finalize a reorganization plan, through which Spyglass Entertainment chiefs Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum are expected to take over management. Barber has been leading negotiations on "The Hobbit" for MGM with top Warner executives, including home entertainment group president Kevin Tsujihara.”

From the LA Times on 13 October, discussing a possible merger of MGM and LionsGate: “MGM, meanwhile, has international television channels and a 4,000-title film library with such crown jewels as the James Bond films. In addition, it co-owns rights with Warner Bros. to two movies based on "The Lord of the Rings" prequel "The Hobbit" that are gearing up to start production soon with director Peter Jackson. Warner Bros. and its New Line unit have been waiting for MGM to give an official go-ahead to "The Hobbit" movies, which are expected to cost nearly $500 million. It's unclear whether the new merger proposal will further complicate the "greenlight" process and delay shooting that is planned to start in January.”

There’s more in The Wrap, an LA industry media blog which on 15 October broke the news of the production being set in New Zealand to begin in February: Just this week, takeover king Carl Icahn threw his weight behind an alternate plan, to have Lionsgate merge with MGM instead.”

Yikes! Carl Icahn! He with the means to frighten corporate managers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, nearly invented the term “corporate raider” and “green mailer”, known for raiding union pension plans and slashing jobs, and bought corporations like breakfast cereals. He is offering the deal to rescue MGM from tipping into bankruptcy!

All this big-elephant thrashing in LA does seem to undermine an argument that a local actors union could derail the production of a multi-million dollar film in New Zealand.

But what a great script for the National government to change some irksome employment laws and get public support for more taxpayer funding into a private venture, with US studios to ultimately benefit. And to change what would have been a week that demonstrated growing union and Labour Party strength into a storm of resentment against a "selfish" union, and the CTU.

Reference Links:


Alana Bowman is a Wellington resident who is also a lawyer who has practised in California.

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