Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Hobbit Actor Boycott Post Mortem

The Hollywood Reporter has a post-mortem on the two month battle that occurred between The Hobbit and the worldwide actor guilds that resulted in a financial bonus for Warner Bros and actually made it more difficult for actors to unionize. Overall their theories match up with many of the issues I had with the boycott but still misses a few points.

THR's theories come down to a few points:
- New Zealand Actors Equity (NZAE) never established while the boycott was necessary and what their actions would do to improve things for actors.
- The legal issue was never addressed. NZAE said unionizing the Hobbit was legal, the gov't and others didn't believe so.
- No local support from actors, the industry and the public.
- Using an Australian as spokesperson for the beginning of the boycott.
- Ignoring New Zealand's love of Peter Jackson.
- Mismanagement from a public relations perspective.

I do agree with a lot of the points. NZAE and by extension the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) that gave this boycott its teeth never explained clearly why the boycott was necessary and how unionizing a single production would benefit all actors from that point forward. Having their support come almost exclusively from foreign interests didn't help either. If the unions' actions were to benefit New Zealand, you would think New Zealanders would be the primary source of support.

The legalities also failed to explain that even if NZAE had been successful with The Hobbit, how would that benefit any production that wasn't related to the Hobbit. If claiming to boycott to improve conditions for all actors, a single agreement with a single production would not have accomplished that goal. Such a goal would requires speaking with the Producers Guilds, SPADA, which NZAE avoided until financial, public and government pressure forced them too.

A major point that THR did not directly address is the size of NZAE. Its estimated membership was from 135 to 600 members total. Out of an estimated 4000 actors. Why should anyone, especially the public and government, give such a tiny organization the power to represent an entire job class when they clearly do not? How is that democracy in action when a tiny group can dictate the potential future job opportunities for thousands of others just so a few hundred might benefit?

Ultimately all of this leads to why this became such a colossal failure. The guilds never successfully made the argument that they should be trusted. The assumption of union = trust should have been proven, not implied. That usual works in the states and especially with the press (who did little to actually questions the whys and what’s of the boycott) but that doesn't mean it’s a good strategy.

I believe the plan was pretty simple. NZAE, with pressure from their parent union in Australia, needed to increase its membership and thus its power in the realm of the New Zealand film industry. The Hobbit, a multi-year, very expensive production, presented an opportunity to do this. With the support of a disturbingly easy to deceive overseas unions, a blacklist would be declared. New Zealand actors would see this overseas support and immediately line up behind them and support the cause. Warner Bros and Jackson would give in and unionize The Hobbit. Membership would grow by thousands since any New Zealanders hired for speaking roles would have to join NZAE. With this as leverage, more productions would have to unionize which would further increase their numbers and power to the point that they became the de facto actor union with the leverage that comes with it.

The net result is a plan on paper met reality and immediately fell apart. No support materialized and worse Warner Bros and Jackson fought back getting the public's support. NZAE had no plan B so they waited and hoped the support would just magically materialize while holding meaningless meetings with their tiny membership until public and government pressure eventually forced their hand when Jackson pulled out the trump card of moving the production out of the country. Something I doubt NZAE ever considered to be a possibility.

What was supposed to make NZAE a power player in New Zealand's film industry now has essentially ended the group. Everyone won but them. Warner Bros. saved even more money on the production, the government scored points for stepping in and resolving the problem, the public will benefit with the revenue from the production and renewal of the country as a tourist destination, actors will get a small percentage of the films' profits, the love for Peter Jackson only grew and fans will get their long awaited film. At this point, the question that remains is why did SAG and other unions support the boycott from such a tiny group with so much poor planning?

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