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Book slams NZ over Hobbit union crisis

09:00 Tue Nov 27 2012
AAP
Sir Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, originally slated for two films, became a political football two years ago
Sir Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, originally slated for two films, became a political football two years ago (Getty)

As the buzz around The Hobbit reaches its deafening crescendo, a new book on the film's union troubles says the New Zealand government danced to Hollywood's tune.

It delves into the 2010 industrial dispute when US and international actors unions advised their members "not to accept work on this non-union production".

A short book of only 70 pages (available on kindle), The New Zealand Hobbit Crisis is written by American entertainment journalist and lawyer Jonathan Handel.

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Sir Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, originally slated for two films, became a political football two years ago, and saw Prime Minister John Key step in to broker a deal with Warner Bros executives amid fears the production could be shipped somewhere cheaper as local actors sought to firm up their working conditions.

That saw the government give the studios an extra subsidy of up to $US15 million per movie for spending more than $200 million, expanding what spending qualifies for the rebate under the existing rules, and changing employment law to classify all film workers as contractors by default.

"National emphasised the financial benefit of retaining the Hobbit production in country and described the legislation as a clarification of existing law. Labour, in contrast, charged angrily that the move 'reduced New Zealand to a client state of a US movie studio'," Handel wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.

"I have to ask myself, did he (Mr Key) know how to interact with the big boys?" Handel now asks. "Because Warners flew down like colonial masters and the government paid for the limos."

New Zealand union leaders say the film workers lack labour protections existing in almost any other industry.

Helen Kelly, president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, says a compromise could easily have been reached.

The law changes amounted to unnecessary union-busting and a "gross breach" of employment laws, she told the Associated Press.

"I was very disappointed at Peter Jackson for lobbying for that and I was furious at the government for doing it."

Weta Digital's general manager Tom Greally compared it to the construction industry, where multiple contractors and mobile workers do specific projects and then move on.

All The Hobbit special effects are done at Miramar's Weta Digital where the workforce of 150 on The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago now numbers 1,100.

Only five of Weta Digital's workers are employees while the rest are contractors.

The workforce has changed from majority American to about 60 per cent New Zealanders. The only skill that's needed, says Weta's Joe Letteri (himself an ex-pat American who arrived to work for Jackson in Wellington in 2001 and stayed), is the ability to use a computer as a tool.

"The film business in general is volatile, and visual effects has to be sitting right on the crest of that wave," Letteri told the AP.

"We don't get asked to do something that somebody has seen before."

The government calculates that feature films contribute $560 million each year to New Zealand's economy, with nearly every big budget film going through Jackson's companies.

"New Zealand has a good reputation for delivering films on time and under budget, and Jackson has been superb at that," says John Yeabsley, a senior fellow at New Zealand's Institute of Economic Research.

"Nobody has the same record or the magic ability to bring home the bacon as Sir Peter."

Chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission Graeme Mason says Jackson has "built this incredible reputational position, which has a snowball effect".

The National Business Review estimates Jackson's personal fortune to be about $400 million, which will soar if The Hobbit franchise succeeds.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington on Wednesday.

 
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