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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.


Neal Blomfield said...

"insistence of the MEAA's Simon Whipp, who advised them to "wait until The Hobbit"" says it all.

I don't know how realistic it is but wouldn't it be nice if the actions of the MEAA were declared an act of economic warfare and the MEAA banned as a terrorist organisation (they just used a boycott to try and get their way instead of bombs).

What I find more frustrating than anything about this is the appalling reporting by the likes of John Cambell that appears to be based on no real investigative journalism at all. It's time the facts were presented clearly and openly to the wider NZ public, and it would be nice if the actors guild owned up and accepted they were manipulated into doing the wrong thing at the wrong time).

Debbie Cowens said...

Thanks for posting up this great FAQ. The issue has been a messy and somewhat bewildering tangle in the media for a while and as an outsider it's been tricky to get a handle on what exactly was the motive or cause for the boycott.

Even though I had nothing to do with the LOTR films, I feel immensely proud of them as a fan and a NZer. It would be a tragedy if the Hobbit was moved offshore, even for those of us not directly affected.

Marie said...

I'm wondering if you can shed some light on this question. Robyn Malcolm is referred to by the media as an Actors Equity committee member but she is not on their website as one. Any ideas on why this might be?

Dan said...

Marie - It's a good question but I'm certainly not the person to answer it, as I have no part in Actors' Equity nor any insight into how they operate. If anyone else has the answer please elucidate the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

It seems as though Whipp and the MEAA are shooting themselves in the foot like he did with Justice League in OZ. His actions vastly reduce the money and prospects in the film industries of each respective country, thus reducing the potential union revenue from actors.

Perhaps he has funding from overseas interests to drive the business elsewhere?

Dan said...

I've already been accused of being a conspiracy theorist once in the past two days for suggesting that the MEAA might have an agenda towards destroying our industry, but I think you're bang on the money there.

Tonight on TV3 ( saw Simon Whipp refusing to answer a valid question. The MEAA is as much a puppet of the SAG as Actors' Equity has been of the MEAA, and the consequence of this is very straightforward: Less work heading away from the US (ie, to Australia and New Zealand, etc), more jobs being shot in good old unionised USA.

Is it such a stretch to suggest that pliable people are being used by crafty organisations to dominate and deconstruct the competition? Isn't this the nature of big business, and has been for many centuries?

New Zealand and Australia have both been producing high quality big-budget cinema to rival the USA in recent years and this hurts organisations like the SAG.

So call me a conspiracy theorist. I know that no-one has presented a better reason for what appears to be the calculated and systematic destruction of two powerful creative industries that challenge a flagging US industry in a dark recession.

Fair comment?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fair comment Dan, the problem is the media has so demonised anyone suggesting the possibility of a group of people conspiring for their own gain as a conspiracy theorist that people are afraid to think rationally about agendas.
More and more power now is being centralised and monopolised worldwide in what appears to be a coordinated effort by an unscrupulous bunch of 'elite'. These people own all the big media and film companies.
Considering the self-destructive nature of the MEAA's actions on a local level, an agenda involving offshore interests does seem the most logical.

Either way, thanks for the informative post Dan, it's helping a lot of people make sense of this mess!!!