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Friday, October 22, 2010

Saving the Hobbit - The FAQs

The public response to yesterday's events has made it clear that this situation is as confusing to many as it is potentially disastrous. In response, I'd like to very quickly address what seem to be some of the most common misconceptions floating around out there in the comments, both here and around the blogosphere.

Q: Do the actors have a valid dispute?

A: Yes, but not with the production company 3' 7", or with Wingnut Films. Their claims regarding conditions lie in employment law and should have been taken up with SPADA and the Department of Labour. This could have been done long ago. An opportunity to do so was presented to Actors' Equity 18 months ago, but they chose not to at the insistence of the MEAA's Simon Whipp, who advised them to "wait until The Hobbit".

Q. Should Sir Peter Jackson have met with actors to discuss terms?

A. No. To do so under our current labour laws would have been illegal.

Q. Can't they just cast around the boycott?

A. I'm no casting director, but the answer to that is no. It's not that simple. The more important point is that the damage the boycott has done to this production in particular and also to New Zealand's reputation as a stable place to invest in film projects has been catastrophic.

Q: Does Sir Peter Jackson have a secret agenda to take the production offshore because it's cheaper?

A: Absolute nonsense. Anyone who has worked in Wellington over the past ten years or more knows that a tremendous amount of money has been re-invested by Wingnut Films into the services and infrastructure required for Wellington to offer world-class film studios, post-production facilities, and everything that goes with it, not to mention keeping hundreds of people employed both during filming of larger projects and in the downtime. Everything Jackson needs is here, and it won't come any cheaper taking it elsewhere.

Q. Do the studios have a secret agenda to take the production offshore?

A. The studios have every right to protect their investment. If the risk seems to high to spend their money here, then it makes business sense to take it elsewhere. That's the hard reality of multi-million dollar industries.

Q. Aren't the studios just trying to gouge a bigger tax cut from the Government?

A. Perhaps. According to Sir Peter, they have never asked for one. According to Gerry Brownlee, they have not asked for one. Remember, up until the industrial action was started four weeks ago, there was no discussion about this project going offshore. Not being a studio exec, I can't answer that.

Q. This is just about a rich greedy man getting richer and greedier. (Not exactly a question, but a blatant case of Tall Poppy syndrome that this country has suddenly developed for a man who was our hero not that long ago.)

A. First off, Sir Peter Jackson is anything but greedy, as anyone who knows him and has worked with him will agree. Secondly, yes, he is wealthy, and he has earned every cent of that money through years and years of hard work. If anyone else out there has built a film-making empire from the ground up out of practically nothing, has gone on to bring millions of dollars into our country to feed down into the pockets of ordinary New Zealanders, has created thousands of jobs, has generated billions of dollars in tourism income and created a cultural phenomenon whereby our country is now recognised as a mythical place where dreams can be made reality, then you have a right to criticise whether or not Peter has the right to spend money. If not, then keep it to yourself.

Q. Will losing The Hobbit really be that damaging to our film industry?

A. Yes. The reputation we have as a stable and safe country to bring large jobs to will be gone. Investors will not have confidence that their money is secure and will choose to take it elsewhere. Even the low-budget end of our market is cushioned by the influx of big-budget work - it allows suppliers and technicians to work for lower rates to see projects shot because they love working on them and want to see them made. Without the big-budget work, the low-budget industry will shrivel on the vine as well.

Q. What else can be done? What needs to happen now?

A. That is, of course, the multi-million dollar question. Robyn Malcolm's public renouncement of the boycott last night on TV3 and the assurances that there will be no industrial action taken during this job are good to hear, but just may be too little too late. The damage has been done. The one person who should be stepping forward to take responsibility for this fiasco is Simon Whipp, who refuses to answer questions or to face up the media or the people whose lives he is destroying. Whipp advised Actors' Equity to wait until The Hobbit before starting their dispute action, he has openly stated that he sees this film as an opportunity to unionise the entire NZ film industry, it is his influence that has precipitated this whole affair. This is not wild speculation, it is basic analysis of the MEAA's openly declared intentions and the actions Whipp has taken, regardless of the actual law in this country, to derail a project that represents the life or death of our industry. Whipp needs to face up and bear some responsibility for what he has done. Actors' Equity need to break their ties with the MEAA until that Australian union takes its nose out of our business.

We don't need a unionised industry in this country. We have managed quite well for plenty long enough, thank you very much, and barring that one rogue case of a disgruntled contractor who disputed his employment status with Wingnut a couple of years back, I don't know a single technician who would rather be an employee than a contractor in this industry. Yes, there are some incongruities in the current law that need to be addressed, but the proper place for that is in a review committee with public consultation, the way we handle all issues of law in this country, not in this untenable game of brinksmanship that does nothing but play into the hands of our nearest competitor.

And, of course, this country needs to show Warners and the world that we want this film here. We already know we have the talent and the motivation. Apparently there are going to be public demonstrations in all the major centres next week, though details on that are still murky. Check out this Facebook page.

Keep spreading the word, keep making a noise.We won't go quietly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Breaking the Silence - Save the Hobbit

As some of you may know, my day job is in New Zealand's film industry. It is a dynamic and exciting area to be working in, but the events of the past few weeks surrounding The Hobbit have brought the industry as a whole into great peril, and things could not be worse.

However, this in not being seen in the media. All we have been hearing is "actor's conditions" and "Peter Jackson refuses to meet with the union." Until yesterday, we had not heard a whimper of support for the filmmaking genius that brought us LOTR and King Kong. For years we have all presumed that Sir Peter was impervious, a rock that could weather any storm and bring us all through it with him intact. The selfish and destructive actions of the Australian MEAA have proven otherwise.

Last night I joined a thousand other technicians marching through the streets of Wellington in an unscheduled demonstration in support of Peter Jackson, and in support of our local industry. It was well past time that the people who have been so supported by Peter and his tireless work in this country over the last 25 years stood up and showed him that we value and respect him. We owe him a great deal, and we will not stand silent while he fights the fight of his life. He has fought for us. We will fight for him.

These are the basic dynamics of this conflict:

- The Australian Union (the MEAA) is threatened by the dynamic and creative independent NZ film industry that is flourishing on its doorstep, taking projects and doing them better than they could.

- The MEAA has manipulated Actors' Equity into industrial action against The Hobbit specifically because of the massive impact it will have on our small industry.

- Even if The Hobbit is not shot in Australia, but in Ireland or Prague or wherever, losing it will have disastrous effects on the New Zealand film industry.

From the cynical point of view of a film technician seeing his industry being ripped out from under him, it seems pretty clear that whatever machinations are at work here at higher levels, whoever is being played by who, the outcome of all of this will not be better working conditions for actors, as the smoke and mirrors are leading us to believe.

It will be no work for actors, fullstop. Or for technicians for that matter, or the myriad of support services that prop up the industry, or the hundreds of suppliers downstream who prosper on the downstream value of a project of this size.

What many Actors' Equity members don't seem to understand is that by supporting this boycott they are, to all intents and purposes, committing career suicide. Not in a "if you support this boycott we won't hire you in the future", sort of way, but a "there will be no industry in this country anymore" sort of way. I won't argue that there are issues to be discussed, but these relate to employment law and should be taken up with the New Zealand legislature, not with a production company working within that law.

If The Hobbit goes away, the amazing creative workforce we have here, which has been nurtured by Sir Peter for almost three decades, will also go away.

It's time for more than just the puppets of the union to be heard. Last night we marched, and we tried our best to get people to understand just what is at stake here. We want to do this job. We can do this job better than any other country. Sir Peter is a highly collaborative artist, and the success of his work is not simply the result of his own genius, but the combined efforts of hundreds of people, many of whom I brushed shoulders with on the streets of Wellington last night.

Peter Jackson cannot pick up the hundreds of people who comprise this amazing community and take them overseas. These are the people who brought you The Lord of the Rings. These are the people that hand-sculpted the miniatures, who drizzled the blood, who aged the costumes, who hammered and dressed the sets, who rigged the lights. New Zealand is Middle-Earth.

But something drastic needs to happen if that is going to remain the case. The Hobbit made anywhere else will not be drawing on the extensive expertise of a community that have been there and back again, who spent upwards of seven years perfecting the craft that made LOTR the stunning work it is. The only way we can hope to keep this job in New Zealand where it belongs is by making our voices heard.

If you're a fan of The Lord of the Rings, and you want to see another glowing masterpiece on cinema screens in two years time, not a tawdry imitation, then you need to speak up.

Tweet this link, if you're on Twitter.

Post this page to Facebook.

Blog about it, let the world know that The Hobbit is on the precipice of falling into mediocrity, and that you won't stand for it.

Let the studios know that you don't want a cheap knock-off, but a shiny polished original.

Spread the word. Do it now.

Save The Hobbit.

UPDATE: Auckland Film Techs and #SaveTheHobbit & #PeterJackson supporters: Be at 40 Vermont St, Ponsonby, 6.30pm, with placards.