Thursday, October 21, 2010

Struggle Continues in New Zealand - Greed Wins

The Hobbit, prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, seems to be on its own trek of destiny. As we commented in an earlier post, the New Zealand Actors Equity, supported by SAG, AFTRA and other international labor organizations, was holding its actors back from working on Jackson's latest cinematic venture into the classic tale.

Actors Equity, backed by the International Federation of Actors, was protesting the fact that this big-budget film, that was going to be employing internationally famous as well as local talent, was planning to do so without the protection and comfort of an Equity contract.

As was stated in a previous post, we are consummate supporters of laborers using whatever leverage available to them to achieve better conditions and contracts. In this Organizer's eyes, its difficult to understand or believe the claims made by Sir Peter Jackson that New Zealand is going to suffer irreparable harm and loss of Hollywood income now that the world knows New Zealand actors want the same contractual protections as their counterparts across the globe.

Helen Kelly, the president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, has been quoted as saying that talks had been progressing well and Sir Jackson's interests were less than altruistic:

CTU president Helen Kelly [called] the publicity a "no holds barred fight for public opinion" and Sir Peter a "spoiled brat" who had blocked talks with the union.

"We were making progress. Why would he stop it? He's trying to maximise his reputation against the reputation of performers."

According to Sir Peter, Warner Brothers is sending executives to New Zealand to make arrangements to move the production out of the country. That claim has been questioned in this article of the New Zealand Herald:

Prime Minister John Key and Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee will meet Warner Bros executives next week in a bid to keep the $670 million production here.

[Finance Minister Bill English] said it was possible Warner Bros was using the industrial dispute to push an agenda for more tax breaks, which are estimated to be worth $50 million to $60 million.


NZ Actors Equity president Jennifer Ward-Lealand said the union had given an unequivocal guarantee that there were no union barriers to The Hobbit.

"We find [the idea that the production is leaving New Zealand] perplexing when we know that flights for overseas actors are already being booked to New Zealand, and their contracts have the filming clearly located here. The production office is already issuing contracts to New Zealand performers and crew."

What I find most amazing, and unfortunate, are the actions of the artists of Weta Digital. This article explains that the artists, who feared losing their jobs if the production left the country, marched in solidarity against collective action and in protest of an Actors Equity meeting that was to take place. The events of that day as well as opinion of the matter are chronicled in this blog of a Weta Digital artist.

As a venerable and wise mentor of my young Organizer career constantly reminds me, groups of people will be motivated to action when the right set of circumstances are met. Once a tipping point of resilience has been crossed, people will begin to realize where their best interests lie. I can only hope that the artists of Weta Digital are as quick to realize that the strength of their collective action can work in their favor in more than just this way.


Steven Kaplan said...

Further development: Peter Jackson calls the actors attempts at contractual protection "having a bit of fun" Watch the interview here

Shame on the both of them for being "Proud Union Members" and acting this way.

Anonymous said...

I want to agree with the union here, but can't help but think that they are doing more harm than good. If it weren't for PJ, there wouldn't even be a NZ film industry. Just let the man make the movie in peace...

pappy d said...

What harm?

Morgan Loomis said...

Thanks Steven for your commentary, and for your work on this blog.

I think this struggle is a bit misrepresented as simply a pro- or anti-union battle. I can only really speak for myself, but my feeling being down here is that regardless of the Actors Equity's requests, they didn't handle this through the right channels, or with the proper support, and the result has been a real threat to the industry here. Their requests aren't unreasonable, but their actions have undermined that and damaged their credibility as an organization who cares about New Zealand film makers, actors or otherwise.

I've written more in response to your comment here:

Thanks again for the nod.

buywowaccount said...

A good negotiation is highly recommended for both parties. I understand why the union acts that way and i do sympathize on how Peter J felt about the unions act towards his movie. But leaving NZ isn't a great idea to push with cause it would mean lose-lose game between NZ actors and the production the movie.

Anonymous said...

A well written piece, but I encourage you to do a little research before making assumptions. I know how easy it is to read the headlines and think that multi millionaire Peter Jackson is trying to take advantage of the poor kiwi actor. I'll just say that i like the idea of a union and as a kiwi I must admit out history with unions has been rocky. Our Industry is vastly different to that of other countries, especially the US, so direct comparisons will rarely be valid. I am also not opposed to actors seeking to improve working conditions. I am against how This one has gone about it.

This actor's Equity was not a recognised union, they were struck from the record in fact. Nor do they represent the majority of NZ actors.

They pursued a meeting with Peter Jackson to discuss a collective agreement which was denied as it is illegal under NZ law. Also Peter Jackson has never dealt with actor's contracts in his life.

Their opening salvo was to instigate a worldwide blacklist of the film saying it was a non union production. This is not true in the slightest, every Union contract was to be honoured. NZ actors are independent contractors and so are bound by NZ law. Not only was the blacklisting of the Hobbit unfounded, but for the first time in any NZ production the studio had set up a residual scheme for NZ actors.

When asked what it is they actually wanted, NZ Equity Spokesperson Jennifer Ward Lealand was unable to answer...she mentioned nudity clauses....for The hobbit? they've said it's not about money (Peter Jackson offers nz actors world class rates) and I've witnessed first hand how they are treated on set, that is like royalty.

The damage they've done here may well be irreversible and they seem unable to comprehend that they are to blame. It is industrial unrest that cause the Hobbit to leave our shores, not tax breaks. Before this blacklisting began there wasn't any question where the film would be shot, sets are already under construction.

Peter Jackson has done more for these actors than their union ever has. They have behaved like a petulant child with a gun.

Some food for thought:

Morgan Loomis said...

I think this article makes an informed argument for how Actors Equity botched their cause.

Anonymous said...

"What harm?"

Forcing the film out of New Zealand, which, as Morgan pointed out on his blog, has a giant ripple-effect on the people and economy there.

Plus, as a fan, I love watching LOTR, knowing that its all filmed in NZ, the props and sets and horses and extras are all Kiwi. Weta Workshop is there, NZ IS MIDDLE EARTH. For some inexplicable reason, it adds to my enjoyment of the film. It feels more genuine.

I cant help but think the unions are being bullies and being greedy about something they KNOW will be a huge money-maker. Its biting the hand that feeds you. Especially when everyone involved with the project (I actually knew some extras from LOTR) loved their experience on the previous films and were treated/paid fairly.

Just my opinion...

Morgan Loomis said...

I'd prefer this discussion not turn into an anonymous shouting match, and I'm compelled to defend my colleagues here. People from all aspects of the New Zealand film industry were present at the demonstration, including actors. They're concerned for their jobs, because they like living and working here, and I don't see it as cowardly to express that.

Rolling Red said...

I'll have to watch my temper here not to offend the sensitive souls, it will be hard. I read Morgans piece and while I appreciate how well supported it was with outside links and media it is not at all impartial, in fact the anti union bias is all too clear. It is easy to belittle the Actors Equity "a small NZ union which represents only a handful of actors" and their "botched" attempt which is responsible for Warner Brothers taking the Hobbit to Eastern Europe as the rumor goes. A - What Richard Taylor or Fran Walsh or PJ himself surely did not emphasize in their company meeting is that Actors Equity had a wide support from film unions worldwide not only Australia but also the US and Canada, as well as some major actor stars among them Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving. It wasn't a rogue takeover by a few radical renegades as PJ worshipers make it out to be.
B - The collective bargaining agreement for independent contractors is denounced as *illegal*, but the insight and analysis stop there. Did anybody mention "Rogeronomics" at Weta? NO? Not surprisingly because the company in the past I know for a fact, and I suspect at the present as well push their employment practices to the limits and beyond of what is in fact, wait - umh.. legal. How many vfx artists are classified as "independent contractors" while working on site every day, are required to be on the premises for 10 hours, are directed by the company and perform work that is strictly in line with the company's business. Did anyone look into NZ work code? How legal is that? Flaunting "illegality" as an issue by a company with employment practices like Weta's is disingenuous and dishonest.

Rolling Red said...

C - Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson admit that they do not have the power to influence WBs decision, it is strictly and simply economics as it always has been. The new spot that WBs is eying is speculated to offer double the tax breaks that NZ has been able to offer to date. What's killing the NZ Hobbit production is the same phenomenon that has been offshoring vfx jobs to China, India and Singapore for the last 10 years - that is called globalization and free market economy - wake up people. Warner Brothers played it well using the labor incident to do what they wanted to do to begin with. Who gets blamed as is sadly too common these days - the union.

A personal note to all of you my fellows down under in Kiwiland, I know that you all are enjoying living in your roomy houses overlooking pristine bays, while raking in decent salaries and you all are geeks who more than anything want to have the Hobbit on their reels and all that is worth defending on some level, I understand. But please, wean yourself off the patronizing emotional dependency on your employer, the illusion of a company being some sort of proxy for a loving extended family. The company's best does not equal your best interest *by design* (I recommend full-heartedly Tom Sito's "Drawing the Line" - you can't call yourself an animator unless you've read it). Our best interest is served only when we look after our own self interest, collectively in solidarity with our coworkers and peers.

Anonymous said...

I've been doing animation for 13 years. Telling me I can't call myself an animator because I haven't read a certain book is retarded.

Anonymous said...

Show me the greivances from artists, actors, and craftsmen from LOTR and maybe you'll have a point

Wes said...

Are you serious? I know so many people who have worked at WETA, on LOTR and other films, and virtually all of them, to a person, describe it as practically a sweatshop. Extremely, excessively long hours, and the pay isn't that great. Burnout seems a common theme.

Granted, some of them loved working in New Zealand, and loved the movies they worked on. But the conditions themselves have a very common and similar theme to them.

How sad that current WETA employees would throw fellow artists under the bus, actively demonstrating against them, just for their own petty, self-serving company worship.

Jeff Massie said...

It seems increasingly apparent that there's a certain amount of disinformation going on here on behalf of Jackson. Weta and Warner Bros.

From my years of experience as a catherder of union artists, it seems to me unlikely that the Weta artists spontaneously rose as a united group to picket in favor of actors working without a union contract. Do we know for a fact that this the case? (I'm not saying it is or isn't, I'm just asking.)

Steven Kaplan said...

Anon 10-21 7:38pm -

I appreciate your passion and comments. Thank you for weighing in.

As I mentioned, AE acted with what leverage and information it had. The only thing I can accuse Sir PJ of is highly charged ranting. I stand behind his passion as an artist and film maker, but can not abide his pointing fingers at AE and blaming them for acting in the best interests of the actors on Hobbit and the countless others to come after the fact.

I do not believe damage to New Zealand has been done at all. If anything, all this media attention has brought a bigger spotlight on New Zealand and its film industry. I would wager that more and better films will be made there in the next ten years than would have been without this row. As is said out here, no press is bad press. If Hobbit does end up leaving New Zealand, it will not be because of AE, but because of greed and industry globalization.

Anonymous said...

What a lot of you are completely ignoring is the fact that the accusations they made against the Hobbit production were completely false. It is completely the fault of NZAE and MEAA that the Studio is looking elsewhere. If the leverage you are using ruins the livelihoods of thousands of your countrymen and colleagues, how can that be a good thing? It's one thing to support unions, quite another to do it so blindly that you support them no matter what damage they cause.

Also people shouldn't believe the urban legends surrounding Weta, I have many friends that loved their time there and were very well paid and well treated. Saying they are a sweatshop or breaking laws is misinformed, irresponsible hate mongering.

Steven Kaplan said...

Anon 4:14 -

I have contended that the studio is looking elsewhere because that's what studios do. I've also alluded that the studio is not going to leave and is coming to NZ to vie for bigger tax breaks.

Finally, should the studio take the production out of NZ, Weta will not close and film making will not go away. I mentioned previously that no press is bad press. The New Zealand countryside is a prime location for film making and the industry there will most likely benefit from all this.

Anonymous said...

A lot of Assumptions there Steven, Weta will not close no, but all the on set crew, set builders, costume makers, extras etc will be out of a job. This is a job they're been waiting for for a long time, we don't have as robust and plentiful a film Indusrty here as some countries. If you ruin 1 large prodction here, there aren't others to choose from and everyone loses. Blacklisting The Hobbit as a first assault was a devastating blow to the whole industry.

Let's just hope that you are right, that it will not leave NZ. Either way this union has an entire country against them now for their selfish and destructive actions.

You can call Sir Peter's words into question when he says it is because of industrial unrest or that the Studio has never asked for more tax breaks, But he has been known to be a very down to earth and honest man and I don't think that's fair.

Morgan Loomis said...

If it turns out that Warners is in fact embracing the dispute as an excuse to move the film to a country with bigger tax breaks, then that is sad and unforgivable. But I believe PJ wants to shoot this film in his own country and he'll fight for that, I don't have any reason to think otherwise. If WB is the culprit, I will not defend them, but if the film does stay here, then that undermines that particular defense of the AE's actions.

As for the impact on the film industry, I think the immediate result of the film leaving will be obvious to the people down here. Whether or not long term damage has been done in either case, we'll just have to wait and see.

I don't know for a fact Warner's or PJ's motivations, but unfortunately to the people here at least, I think the AE and the MEAA will receive the brunt of the blame. They did not come through this looking good, and part of that is slander, but I still think they could have handled things differently and with much better result for everyone. It may not be worth beating that over the head since it's said and done, but I think it should inform unions in the future.

There's a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories, I hope it gets clearer soon.

Rolling Red said...

You are introducing a false dichotomy by saying in your first paragraph that if Warners pulls the shooting to another country, they will be the culprit and you will not defend them, but if the film stays in NZ that it somehow undermines AEs actions. PJs interests absolutely include keeping the production in NZ - Warners, not so much. PJs efforts to abate the AE are all the more important when the shooting location hangs in balance to begin with - but not BECAUSE of it.

This is a trifecta. I am going to predict it as follows, unsurprisingly. Warners comes first, then PJ, last NZ actors and the union. I believe like Steve, that filming will remain in NZ. PJ's frantic efforts including the march on the beehive and a massive press campaign around the fear of calamitous unemployment that this single project purportedly would cause are creating the right climate and pressure on the NZ government to sweeten the deal for Warners and possibly setting a precedent for future productions.

Anonymous said...

I think Morgan's point was more that if WB were in fact using the union dispute as a smoke screen or scape goat for gaining tax breaks then he wouldn't defend them.

If they leave NZ, the studio has valid reasons for doing so. industrial unrest is not something you want to deal with when investing $500 million. Although I'd rather see them stay in NZ.

Rolling Red I think you're dead right that recent actions are creating the right climate and pressure for the NZ government to step in. I think that they will, and maybe they should, but maybe they shouldn't have needed to.

I don't claim to have all the information but it's certainly not a union vs anti union debate. I think it requires more research.

Anonymous said...

The Hobbit rates are 50% above SAG minimums and for the first time in 20 years NZers were offered residuals. Did you know it was NZ Actors Equity that removed residuals 20 years ago in return for a higher daily rate?

Morgan Loomis said...

Yeah, I was just saying that one of the arguments in favor of the union right now is that Warners has always wanted to take the film offshore and AE just gave them an excuse. If the movie stays here, that particular argument seems invalid. My other point was that some people seem to think PJ either doesn't care where it gets shot, or would move the production to spite the union. But I believe he'll do what he can to keep it here.

I do have a question, which I'm legitimately curious about your opinions on, because I haven't heard it discussed yet. What if the film moves to a country that has no unions, with poor pay and conditions for local extras and crew? Does that make anyone upset, or would anyone boycott on their behalf?

Anonymous said...

A NZ actor's take on events:!/note.php?note_id=466554354888&id=636904281

Anonymous said...

Watch this. Fuck unions.

Anonymous said...

I hear a lot of talking, yet this seems like a classic case of cashing in on someone else's successes.

Lord of the Rings was a HUGE gamble, with TONS of potential to fail, and many nay-sayers lurking. Then it went on to break box office records and break oscar records. Magic.

Fast forward and The Hobbitt FINALLY gets greenlit, and now you have these cronies coming out of the woodwork with their hands out talking about residuals and labor disputes and bullshit.

BULLSHIT. Let Peter Jackson and New Zealand make their films and stay the fuck out of the way.

Anonymous said...

Jackon is so right - these people are embarrassingly unschooled in what it takes to make a film of this scale, so they resort to paranoia and conspiracy theories. WB is fully behind Peter Jackson and his desire to keep the Hobbit in NZ at all costs. But large pools of money only wait around for so long. It's a huge embarrassing blunder by people posing as labor who have absolutely no idea what they have done and how stupid they are. These morons holding this production hostage are no different than Tea Party fools like Christine O'Donnell. Morons. Ignorance makes me vomit.

Rolling Red said...

Morgan, I assume your recent response is aimed at me. I still think that your logic is flawed. This is more complex than if "A then B", and "if not B therefore not A". I agree with you on your "other point". The question you asked at the end of your comment is pure speculation and therefore I find it either naive or sarcastic. Lets evaluate it when the filming location is finally decided on and locked in. All Best.

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