Thoughts on the Actors’ Hobbit Boycott

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.

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25 Responses to Thoughts on the Actors’ Hobbit Boycott

  1. Non says:

    Morgan,

    I wholly agree. I’ve read up on this case in a few different newspapers and I am on the side of Jackson. To be perfectly frank, I don’t think unions should exist. Not in the workforce, not anywhere. Now, if we are to take the historical intention of the union into mind, one has a better argument to support unionization. However, I don’t believe that’s true today. In my experience, from what I’ve seen, unions tend to hinder and depress the employer and the work prowess/ethic/output of its members.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks for the post. Keep it up.

  2. Jesse Vickery says:

    I agree with you, Morgan. It’s pretty convenient that the MEAA decides to be such a hero and stick up for actors in a situation where its impossible (illegal even?) to negotiate. But it seems like the actors who the union supposedly represent are being very quiet. I bet if high a profile actor like Ian MacKellan publicly vouched for Peter Jackson and NZ working conditions, a lot of momentum toward repealing the boycott would be gained. Or maybe the actors themselves have been speaking out for or against and Ive just missed it.

    Does Howie Weed still do Worth A Mention? I feel out of touch without those emails.

  3. The big actors’ opinions do seem absent from this discussion. According to the Equity, Ian MacKellan supports the boycott, but I don’t think we’ve heard an actual statement from him. Also supposedly Elija Wood signed the petition against the boycott, but I don’t know of any statement from him, either. There’s a lot of actors in New Zealand that have spoken out against the Equity and the boycott, but I’m curious what the big stars have to say. Because SAG is involved, perhaps they’re urged not to talk about it?

  4. The latest update is that The Hobbit will not be shot in New Zealand, reported by NZH and /Film. I’ll still hold out hope that some agreement can be reached, but this is a huge bummer.

  5. Hey Non, I’m not necessarily opposed to unions in principle, I think sometimes it can be hard for workers to make their grievances heard by companies who are big enough to be emotionally removed from their workforce. The problem with unions is that they can easily be just as corrupt and self-serving as any organization, and in this case, the Actors Equity acted without a vote from their members, or the support of the much larger industry, which doesn’t seem right to me. And they they seem to have been naive about the consequences, and stubborn about admitting that, which isn’t helping their cause.

  6. More updates:
    Radio Interview with Fran and Phillipa this morning
    Counter-argument interview from Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions.
    Photos from the rally last night
    News report on the rally

  7. Rod Friant says:

    Having been a member of various unions over the years I can only voice my own opinion as to this issue. Unions started out as the only protection for those who worked under oppressive, dangerous or humiliating conditions while living in squalor. Having said that,
    the unions have been corrupted to the point of becoming shakedown organizations that subdue and control companies by preying on our fears of past transgressions. Peter Jackson has done more for New Zealand than arguably anyone in modern times and has elevated it to international status as a movie-making contender. It is a travesty that he is being held hostage by those who would claim to only represent the common man.

  8. Hey Rod, thanks for the comment and insight. I’ve never been a part of a union and so almost don’t feel qualified to take a true stance. It’s also interesting coming from the US, which has historically had success with unions as champions of the working man. By contrast, New Zealand’s union history has been troubled, and the result seems to be laws against collective bargaining, and distrust of unions.

  9. Jesse V says:

    Its really sad if things end up going the way it seems they will. What does this union expect its members to do once The Hobbit has been driven away? Get job at one of the other hundreds of movie projects going on in NZ? Talk about cutting your nose off to spite your face.

  10. I’m starting to be optimistic again. The boycott is officially lifted, and there were TV interviews with the different parties last night which did a pretty good job of clarifying things I thought. It sounds like we’ll know for sure what’s going on next week when Warner Bros comes to visit.

  11. Morgan –

    Your blog post was brought to my attention and I’ve written my thoughts on the matter and referenced your blog in ours. Please feel free to read my post at this following address:

    http://animationguildblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/struggle-continues-in-new-zealand-greed.html

    I am the Labor Organizer for IATSE Local 839, The Animation Guild. We are located in Los Angeles, California. I have a much different view of Sir Peter’s stance on the subject as well as the march against the Actors Equity meeting that you speak about.

    I don’t blame the artists for believing that their jobs were in jeopardy and taking a stand against it. In fact, I was quite surprised and enthralled to read that the group acted with such collective strength and with such solidarity. In my experience, artists like those who practice visual effects are a difficult group to motivate in such a way.

    Negative views of Labor Organizations aren’t new and fears of greedy, self-centered individuals fleecing the honest worker for fees and dues and offering nothing but the promise of a return visit the next month are typical. I have to admit that only a few years ago, I thought the same thing about unions. After a specific set of circumstances fell into place in my life, I was left reflecting why it was visual effects artists were without representation and contracts that protected them in the workplace and provided portable health care. That is when I discovered there was such protection and decided to help bring it to the artists I worked with and next to for years.

    As I wrote about in my blog post, it seems to me that New Zealand is not in jeopardy of losing any revenue from incoming Hollywood productions. Equally, the Weta artists should sleep comfortably with the knowledge that their jobs are as secure as their work is world-class. To me, this has all been an exercise in the classic struggle of the power of decision in the workplace and “Management’s” attempt to keep that power to itself.

    I’ll reiterate my extreme pride for the artists in banding together to show their feelings and protect their jobs. I just hope when the bell tolls for them, and I am extremely convinced it will, that their resolve is just as strong when they are once again faced with the need to stand together, in solidarity, to achieve the strength of collective action in their workplace.

  12. Dee says:

    You realize union = better money/conditions/benefits/PAID overtime for the artists
    Non union = more money for directors/executives/producers

    I’m sure Peter loves being a member of the Directors guild, its nice being at the top of the pyramid. Artists at Weta need to grow some balls and do your homework. Look what the animation guild, directors guild, screen actors guild have done for their artists.

    You are dreaming if you think non-unionization is in anyones interests except for those at the top.

  13. Hey Steven, thanks for your thoughts, I’ve been following your blog, and the debate about animation and vfx unions, with a lot of interest. Being so close to this whole event has been very informative, but is also far from convincing me that unions are always or inherently bad.

    I think this is emotional for a lot of people here, and so the more extreme views are the ones that are heard above the noise. There’s a lot of blanket anti-union talk as well as accusations toward Australia and actors in general, which I can’t get behind. For me, the issue is not what the Actors Equity wants, but how they went about trying to get it. I would support the AE if I knew they had the support of their own members, and had approached this in a better way. But I don’t think they’re doing a very good job of representing actors or helping their cause right now, and I think they acted naively and rashly.

    I also feel proud of the gusto of the artists at Weta, and the irony was not lost on me that the gathering felt like a union rally. It should be noted that the demonstration in Wellington was not just Weta people, but people from all parts of the film industry, including actors. I can only say this after living here, but Wellington can’t really be compared directly to the LA film industry. It is a small country, with a total population less than LA, and this news was big enough to significantly affect the value of the NZ Dollar this week. Everyone here is very close to this project and I don’t doubt that losing it will affect this industry and economy in a real way.

    I think this is a healthy discussion to have in regard to our own industry, so thanks for your comment!

  14. Hey Dee, to clarify again, I’m not making case for non-unionization, or saying that the actors’ requests are unreasonable. But I think it’s imprudent to assume that all unions are naturally charitable and all directors are greedy. They’re all just a bunch of people. If I was a member of a union that took this kind of action without my vote, I wouldn’t feel properly represented, and that should be the whole purpose.

  15. Thank you for the kind words Morgan, both here and on the TAG Blog. I’m glad to hear that you are a regular reader of our opinions and comments.

    I’ve read the article you posted in the comments at the TAG Blog and have to say, it makes a strong argument for how differently Irish Equity is managed more than it does specifically scrutinizing New Zealand AE in this instance. I would be interested to learn more of the disparity between the two organizations history as it relates to labor laws in their countries. As I mentioned before, I am in full support of any individual or labor organization using what leverage is available as a means to bettering their work conditions, wage scales or contract. While in hind sight the actions of New Zealand AE seem harsh and have been called the reason that Hobbit could be going out of country, I find it difficult to call them such and rather believe that the union was acting with what information it had and what leverage it possessed.

    I still take umbrage with Sir PJ and his vitriolic rants against the union. However, as you’ve stated, its easy to write off such commentary to high passion and emotion on both sides of this fence. I will again happily and easily argue that Warner Brothers decision to leave New Zealand, if it comes to pass, is rooted only tangentially – if at all – in the actions of AE. A commenter on our blog summed up my view succinctly:

    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[…]. 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.

    We are very familiar with studio greed and I believe Warners will act as all studios do, in the effort to maximize profits by any means.

  16. I’m far from trusting studios unconditionally; like you said, most of us in this industry have been part of a few bad experiences. And also as was mentioned, globalization is the reason this sort of thing is possible, and common.
    But I can’t get over thinking that for an organization to maintain that they represent a country’s industry worth of people, they should take more responsibility on behalf of those people. They should know the laws in their own country, consider the consequences of their action, make sure they have the support of their constituency, be clear about their requests, and relay them through appropriate channels. And it’s not my intention to sound anti-union, because I think a union that was better organized and prudent could have accomplished something positive.

  17. Tim Munro says:

    The unions acted in a totally irresponsible fashion, and Sir Peter is well within his rights to feel ambushed. The key factor here is that a foreign union acted without majority support of its own members, on top of this, NZ Actors equity only represent around 10% of actors here. The head of the NZ council of Trade unions has rushed to the side of the Australian union, and as such is acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign country.

  18. Rolling Red says:

    Everybody – meet vfxsoldier. It may surprise you but the problem NZ is facing is not unique, it is global. If you have the sense of humor and the open mind to get through
    new-zealand-casualties-of-the-film-subsidy-war reading his other articles is worthwhile too. I while back he wrote about Canada “stealing” the vfx work from California which upset me (I am in Canada) but at the core of it I agree with him. Government subsidized vfx locations are nothing else but maquiladoras. Of course he is overlooking the fact that government subsidies are a tried and true way to encourage local industry and talent, but I am veering off topic here.

  19. I just got through the article and posted some quick thoughts in the comments there. His points are valid, but like most the articles on the blog, they’re defeatist and paint the image of a passionless industry that cares only about the bottom line. Even though there’s truth to that, it’s not the whole truth, and so I’m not sure he’s being constructive. I try to remain more optimistic.

  20. Rolling Red says:

    I knew that you would appreciate the valid points, vfxsoldier makes a lot of sense and in fact his position is not much different than yours. Like you championing the local film industry in NZ, he comes forward with the intent to protect the interests of local vfx industry in California. I think that on this you would at least be split. 🙂 It is worth mentioning that when you refer to “passionless industry” you sweep into the same pile everybody from runners and caterers through artists of all sorts, directors, management, producers, and execs. There isn’t such a thing as a single monolithic industry, there is only hundreds and thousands of people who work in it together often with clashing interests. I think you are misrepresenting vfxsoldier by implying that he sees the total of the industry as you expressed it. It would be naive to think that there aren’t people within the industry to whom film making is not art or labor of love, but shrewd business. Being excessively critical and exacting as vfxsoldier can be is not being destructive, the same way that being positive and optimistic is not always constructive. Not to make an exact parallel because it would be insulting to the civil rights fighters, but where would MLK be without Malcolm X?

  21. Fair enough. 🙂
    And in the interests of full disclosure, I’m from California and was working there only 10 months ago, so I appreciate his point of view in that respect.

  22. Rich Cave says:

    I was looking forward in a few years time relocating to NZ as a VFX artist, now this seems that the needs of the few are overreaching the needs of the many, PJ has done more for the industry than any one man.

    This means my future in NZ is practically over, I will never get the chance to work for WETA.

    I think the title of one of Peters film comes to mind, Braindead. Unions are the gangster barons of the industrial age.

  23. Cheer up mate, as of last night The Hobbit will officially be shooting in New Zealand, and I’m sure Weta will be around for a long time.

  24. Rod Friant says:

    Morgan,
    As someone who has waited since the 70’s for the technology to catch up with the story, I am glad to see the pioneers of this project finish the job. NZ – There and Back Again, an animators tale.

  25. Awesome Rod, thanks!

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