An Australian trade union, the MEAA, has generated a world wide actor boycott on The Hobbit, to bolster their demand that producers on the film enter into collective bargaining with the NZ Equity/MEAA. The MEAA has now admitted that their collective bargaining proposal is in fact, illegal, under New Zealand law. In Sir Peter Jackson’s opinion “The Hobbit is being punished with a boycott which is endangering thousands of NZ jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign income, for no good reason.”
The attack on The Hobbit by NZ Actors Equity and the MEAA has resulted in a very public dispute, between NZ Equity and the producers of The Hobbit. The actors are claiming they are underpaid and do not enjoy the same working conditons as their overseas counterparts. This accusation that has been levelled specifically at The Hobbit, but Sir Peter Jackson says it has no basis in fact.
“The MEAA’s campaign against The Hobbit has nothing to do with the way Wingnut Films has treated actors and everything to do with using The Hobbit to bring publicity to the MEAA’s cause” said Sir Peter. “They do not seem to care about the damage they have done to our film or for that matter, to the New Zealand film industry in general. This is about nothing more than leveraging our movie for politcal gain.”
After days of explanation and legal opinions, including one from the Crown Law Office, Jennifer Ward-Lealand of NZ Equity has admitted that the MEAA’s demands to enter into collective bargaining are in fact illegal. The producers of The Hobbit say that their refusal to enter into illegal negotiations with the MEAA is the reason the film is blacklisted worldwide. “I have been waiting to hear some kind of explanation for the needless damage NZ Equity/MEAA has done to our film, but nothing has been forthcoming. While the MEAA has admitted their blacklisting of The Hobbit has no legal foundation, they have done nothing to remove the ban on the film. “I am amazed that hundreds of millions of dollars of potential income for New Zealand, has been put at risk by a tiny group people who did not even bother to do their legal homework.”
Sir Peter goes on to say: “This situation is bordering on farce because The Hobbit has been falsely accused of being a “non-union” production – by NZ Equity, who themselves have been struck off the register of Incorporated Societies, having lost their union status. It would be laughable, if there weren’t so much at stake. But there is nothing funny about people losing their jobs and the crippling effect that losing The Hobbit is going to have on our film industry” said Sir Peter.
Sir Peter felt compelled to respond to the mounting criticism in the press that his films pay actors low wages. “For years our company WingNut Films has hired actors on terms and conditions that are among the best and most generous in New Zealand. We have always treated cast and crew with kindness and respect, because it is the right thing to do, not because it is enshrined in an industry code of practice. I am a firm supporter of unions but when a tiny minority is empowered to endanger the livelihoods of so many people, something is very wrong.”
In New Zealand, Actors rates are based on the length of a film shoot, the size and prominence of a role, the actor’s level of experience, the actor’s name recognition and the actor’s past fee – among other things. These are all variables in determining individual pay rates and contract negotiations.
Sir Peter says that over the last 10 years, the fees NZ actors have earned on WingNut Films productions have been “consistently fair and generous”. “If an NZ actor is contracted to appear for ‘run of picture’ in a small supporting role, they would attract at a fee of around NZ $5000 per week. Looking at the current published rates of the Screen Actor’s Guild of America (which is the gold standard to which NZ Equity aspires), the SAG weekly minimum for the same role and time commitment is NZ $3,800 per week. Therefore Wingnut Films pays NZ actors approx $1,200 per week more than his (or her) US counterpart.”
Sir Peter says that ten years ago, in 1999, he asked New Line to cast Karl Urban in the role of Eomer in The Lord of the Rings. “The studio were insisting we cast a US actor in the role, but I went into bat for Karl – who had no marquee value in the US market at that time,- because I believed he was the best person for the role. Back then, we would typically pay an actor in a role of that size $1600 a day or $10,000 per week. Again, this rate is higher than the SAG minimum.”
NZ Actors, who do not belong to SAG, have never had any profit participation, or residuals, as they are called in the industry. However, Sir Peter says that Warner Brothers has agreed to provide a pot of money for NZ actors to share from the proceeds of the two Hobbit films. “This pot of money is not reliant on the film earning a profit, it comes from box office income, regardless of how well the films perform.”
Sir Peter maintains the residuals on The Hobbit will be worth ‘very real money’ to the Kiwi actors who are cast in the film.
“This is the first time ever NZ actors have had residuals, and we are proud that it’s being introduced on our movie. The level of residuals is better than a similar scheme in Canada, and is much the same as the UK residual scheme. It is not quite as much as the SAG rate.”
Sir Peter dismisses the suggestion that The Hobbit is moving to Eastern Europe because it is cheaper to make films over there. “People are claiming this is the reason the film is moving off shore. It’s completely absurd! Eastern Europe is only being considered because a minority group of the NZ acting community have invoked union action that has blacklisted our film, making it impossible to shoot in New Zealand. It is not an issue in any other country.”
Eastern Europe is one of six locales that Warners are currently investigating as alternative bases to set up the production. “Nobody wants to take The Hobbit off shore, but every day we are blacklisted costs Warners money and the studio is now moving to protect it’s investment.” said Sir Peter.
“It is very naive to think that we have much say in what happens from this point on. Warners gave us an opportunity to set the film up in New Zealand and we have been unable to do that successfully. Warners are cash flowing these films to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and they will now decide how, and eventually where, this money is spent.”
Sir Peter goes on to say “In a television interview our friend, Bruce Hopkins, (who appeared as Gamling in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) said that he failed to understand why myself and SPADA would not even meet with NZ Equity when he considered it possible to come to an agreement that was acceptable to all.” Sir Peter says SPADA has been trying to meet with the NZ Equity/MEAA for over 18 months and every invitation to meet to discuss actor’s contracts has been rebuffed by the union “for various reasons.” Sir Peter goes on to say “Bruce is right, that meeting needs to happen, it is the only logical way to solve this dispute. SPADA represents the film producers of New Zealand and is this is only organisation in the country who can negotiate actor’s terms and conditions with NZ Equity.”
“The MEAA needs to stop playing games and to sit down at the negotiating table with SPADA. This needs to be resolved and quickly for everyone’s sake.”