Richard Taylor called a meeting tonight to talk with film technicians about the actors’ unions boycott of The Hobbit production. I walked down the hill with a bunch of other animators to attend. He and a group of speakers urged people who’s jobs are dependent on the health of the New Zealand film industry to speak out, specifically at an actor’s union meeting tonight (Update: It was cancelled). Phillipa Boyens was also there and spoke emotionally about her fears of imminently losing the Hobbit production to another country. It was a really interesting thing to be a part of, several hundred people showed up, a lot of whom were from Weta. There were picket signs, TV crews, the whole shebang.
Just a quick background on the boycott, in case people elsewhere aren’t following as closely as we are here: a few weeks ago, a small New Zealand union organization, the Actors Equity, with the support from SAG and other big actors’ unions around the world, called for a boycott of the Hobbit movie on the grounds that it was non-union and with the stated goal of improving working conditions for actors in New Zealand. They requested a meeting with the producers of the Hobbit to negotiate a union employment agreement. However, collective bargaining for independent contractors is illegal in New Zealand, and therefore so is the request. Peter Jackson defended his fair treatment of actors and his support for the New Zealand film industry, warning that if the production was destabilized by a boycott here, Warner Brothers would seek other countries in which to shoot the film. He and others accuse Actors Equity parent organization, the Australian MEAA, of misrepresenting Kiwi actors and trying to gain a larger foothold in the New Zealand Film Industry. You can read more about it here. As one response, film industry people started a petition to repeal the boycott.
As this controversy was first unfolding a couple weeks ago, both sides presented conflicting facts and had their own sympathetic arguments. Peter Jackson’s initial letter was emotionally heated and arguably a bit rambling, and the Actors Equity’s insistence that all they wanted was a meeting was clearly oversimplified. With so many emotional arguments it was hard to form an opinion.
After weathering the battle this far, though, I wanted to share my thoughts. Richard Taylor suggested we speak up, so I guess this is my small contribution and an excuse to write a really long post.
I think everyone has the right to be comfortable in their employment, and actors are no exception. They can have an especially hard time because jobs can be so short and sporadic. I think the Actor’s Equity has legitimate concerns that are worth paying attention to, but I find it really hard to support them in this particular case because of the way they’ve obviously targeted a high-profile project and basically held it for ransom. Whether they meant to or not, and for whatever reason, a small group of people has wagered the livelihood of many hundreds of others, as well as the local and national economy. It’s not an exaggeration, Wellington is a small enough place that it’s easy to see how the film industry affects everyone. Our neighbor a couple doors down is a young man who moved to Wellington with the promise of a job building sets for The Hobbit. Since he’s arrived the film has been delayed several times, and without steady employment he’s in debt to his landlord. The other day we also met a lady when we were walking the dogs at the beach, she runs a video equipment and crew hire business, and they had a lot of work for the special features for The Lord of the Rings. At tourist centers, they sell Lord of the Rings travel books; one of the first hikes we went on when we got here was up Mount Doom. And so on.
The other thing that really bothers me about the Actor’s Equity’s tactics is how they’ve specifically targeted Peter Jackson, who has done more than anyone to grow the New Zealand film industry and to make this country an appealing place to shoot a movie. His movies on average pay better than SAG minimums, and every account I’ve heard from extras on Rings was that the compensation was great and so was the experience. I believe that PJ has done more for actors in New Zealand than the union has.
The voices against the AE can be a bit harsh, though. I can’t really relate to the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry that seems to be exacerbating the situation. A lot of people are especially upset about the Australian union’s involvement in the boycott, or the alleged shady nature of that organization, which may have merit, but I think is kind of beside the point. And the argument that the New Zealand film industry is perfect and doesn’t need any sort of reform I feel is also the wrong stance to take. Because of the size and publicity of The Hobbit project, it’s an attractive target for these agendas, and while this bickering is going on the movie will be made elsewhere, and everyone in New Zealand is going to lose.
So, my conclusion: I think the Actors Equity is in the wrong, and should repeal the boycott. They should pursue their reform through more appropriate, respectful, and legal channels, and embrace a film that will surely treat actors well and enliven their industry and economy.
It’s very interesting being so close to this issue, and actually what I’m most curious about now is how this all looks from overseas. Several of the spokespeople here have repeatedly said how damaging this has already been to New Zealand’s international reputation, especially in Hollywood. If you work in the film industry in California or elsewhere outside of NZ, I’d really like to hear how this is all being represented and what your thoughts are.