Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Actor Ban Lifted, NZ Equity Protested, Hobbit Will Move?

The last 24 hours have turned out to be very busy on the actor boycott front. An anti-Equity rally was held, the boycott was lifted but production still may move. First a little background. The actor blacklist was enforced about a month ago against the Hobbit production at the behest of New Zealand Actor Equity (NZAE) which is an arm of Australia's Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) actor union. The blacklist received the necessary teeth when the most powerful actor union in the world, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), supported the move even though the Hobbit production met all the necessary requirements that SAG demands of productions for their union members. This in turn led to Canadian, UK and other actor unions into joining the boycott. The net result is even though The Hobbit had the green light, it could not hire any actors as most of the lead roles would come from these unions.

Compounding the problem is The Hobbit production could not really do anything about the union demands as government law prevents them from entering into an agreement with them. Also, even if the government signed up, the contract would only be bound in that one production, not all the others both current and future that could be filmed in the country. Basically, because of the support of SAG, only the 200 members of NZAE managed to put an entire film industry and literally thousands of jobs in jeopardy as now the studios have been put on notice that their productions could be held hostage at any time, for any reason, with demands that they may not even have the power to address or even a majority of the actors and production workers have an issue with.

This brings us to the crux of this whole situation. Unions generally form because a majority of the workforce feels there are fundamental problems that need to be addressed and only by joining together as a group, a union, can they get the necessary leverage to get their grievances corrected. That did not happen here. NZ Equity, representing only .05% of the total actors in the country, used non-New Zealand unions as the means to gain that leverage. This is the exact opposite of how a union is supposed to form and function.

This background brings up to the last 24 hours. NZAE had scheduled a meeting in Wellington, NZ to meets with only its union actors "to discuss how we can work together to progress new industry standards for performers.” On the same day WETA's Richard Taylor organized a meeting with Film Technicians that was open to any interested parties to discuss the Hobbit boycott. It seems that the turnout was much larger than expected, with up to 1500 people showing up. This in turn then led to a peaceful protest (video below) at the location that NZ Equity was supposed to meet. From Richard Taylor:
“I sent an email at 3pm yesterday suggesting anyone who wants to talk were welcome to come along. I was amazed at the number of people who turned up. Obviously it was incredibly impacting and a statement in itself that so many technicians turned up – we figured maybe 30 or 40 times the number of actors that had turned up in support of the New Zealand Equity side.

“It was decided as a group to go down to the meeting (of NZ Equity) and try to verbalize our concern as the other side of the film industry, the other point of view, the people who are the film makers in New Zealand. The fact that the group that were gathered were emotional is understandable, although passionate is more appropriate. I believe the film industry is fired by passionate people. You don’t make a movie like The Lord of the Rings without passion, drive, determination and motivation, and that’s what the film technicians demonstrated last night.”
NZAE cancelled the meeting and then declared the actor boycott was lifted (no word if SAG is supports this move). New Zealand Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly claims the lift was planned since the weekend but the timing is a bit suspicious considering the meetings were not specifically about the Hobbit. She also took a moment to call Peter Jackson "a spoilt brat" indicating that this probably isn't over.

Good new for New Zealand right? Well maybe not. According to multiple reports, Warner Bros, with support of Peter Jackson, have decided to move the $500 million production to another country. On the other hand a Wingnut spokesperson said:
New Zealand is Middle Earth and we’re still fighting to keep it that way, but it seems we’re fighting a losing battle!

Warner’s are doing what they can to keep the film here too, but with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they need to take steps to protect their investment. They’ve been nothing but supportive.

Unfortunately, the actions of Equity/MEAA have made it hard for NZ to be viewed as the safe and settled one of these films
About the only reason I can think of as to why Warner Bros and Jackson will move the production is fear that when principle photography is underway, NZ Equity will pull this exact same stunt. Since SAG has shown an unquestioned subservient loyalty to this tiny group, such a move would bring production to a grinding halt. In those circumstances, it is likely Warner Bros would just cut their losses and cancel both movies.

It seems that no matter what, some kind of contractual guarantee would have to be signed that would prevent another boycott from occurring. The only way to do that would be to unionize the production to NZ Equity's demands (whatever they are). Conceding would be telling Equity that their extortion methods work; setting a precedent that would be applied to other future productions, something no studio, government or even most people would be willing to do. Make no mistake, NZ Equity's goal is to be the one and only union for any actor in New Zealand, much like SAG is for USA and MEAA is for Australia. This boycott is an effective way to achieve that.

It also might blow up in their faces. The primary goal of a union is to get their members jobs that meet their pay requirements. If the production moves to say Australia, then those goals would be met as the production would unionized under MEAA agreements. So if you are these overseas unions, it is kind of a win-win scenario. If NZ Equity achieves their goals, all actor unions gain strength. If the production moves to their country, then their members get hired. In whatever scenario that plays out, it seems that New Zealand actors not interested in unions are going to be screwed as potentially the thousands of NZ crewpersons that would have been hired to work on The Hobbit.

At this point we seem to be left with about three scenarios. One, production moves to another country. Two, SAG and other overseas guilds agree that once production starts they will not support any attempted new boycott of the film, effectively neutering NZEA. Or, three, NZAE and MEAA agree to no future boycotts of the film.

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