Saturday, November 24, 2012

Of Controversies, Profits and Leverage

From the Washington Post.

... Weta Digital is the centerpiece of a filmmaking empire that Peter Jackson and close collaborators have built in his New Zealand hometown. ... It’s a one-stop shop for making major movies — not only his own, but other blockbusters like “Avatar” and “The Avengers” ...

The special-effects workforce ... now numbers 1,100. Only five of Weta Digital’s workers are actual employees, however, while the rest are contractors. Many accept the situation because movie work often comes irregularly but pays well. Union leaders, though, say the workers lack labor protections existing in almost any other industry. ...

Back in 2010 ... a labor dispute erupted before filming began on “The Hobbit.” Unions said they would boycott the movie if the actors didn’t get to collectively negotiate. Jackson and others warned that New Zealand could lose the films to Europe. Warner Bros. executives flew to New Zealand and held a high-stakes meeting with Prime Minister John Key, whose government changed labor laws overnight to clarify that movie workers were exempt from being treated as regular employees. ...

The above is another case of: "If you've got the juice, you can get what you want."

New Zealand, when it comes to movies, is more or less a one-company town, and I recognize that the government freaked when that company (Peter Jackson, Inc.) was being threatened by a bunch of scruffy union types. Jackson had the leverage to get what he needed from the Prime Minister and others, and the unions came up short.

Old tale, often told.

Still in all, for visual effects workers there is still the wee problem of high but transitory wages coupled to lacklustre benefits and lousy working conditions. Employees of Weta, Digital Domain and similar shops had the bad luck to come into a part of the movie biz that wasn't yet invented when the power of entertainment guilds and unions passed their peak, so effects workers are today like high-paid braceros, moving from city to city and country to country, plying their trade. And the only pension they'll have when their wrists seize up and cataracts make it tough to stare at the flat screen is the money they've managed to tuck away for their old age.


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