Over the weekend, the mysterious mystical forces whose sole purpose in this universe has been to use its divine powers of fate to stop The Hobbit from being made have struck yet again. This time, it came in the form of a "Member Alert" issued from the Screen Actors Guild advising members to not accept work from the beleaguered New Zealand production due to its alleged non-union status. -- At least until union contracts were negotiated for all the actors involved in the film, anyway. While that might sound like a dry, rather minor setback to the uninitiated, the key concept to grasp here, is that The Hobbit may not only be held-up again, but it may be forced to relocate from the beautiful, now-iconic NZ countryside settings in which the Lord of the Rings films were shot. If you think that fans are pissed about this prospect, then just wait until you hear what the film's would-be director Peter Jackson had to say. The typically chipper director put on his angry hat and let loose on his detractors.
Responding to the accusation, Jackson states:
"Behind the claims of exploiting actors who are cast in the “non-Union” Hobbit production, and claims that various high-profile stars will refuse to take part in the films, there are clear agendas at work. As usual with these agendas, they are based on money and power."
The story is full of long and uninteresting details about International Unions colluding together, complex Machiavellian politicking, and the debate as to whether Kiwi actors are being fairly represented in the current system. While those things may give an entertainment lawyer a chubby, it's hardly reading that's conducive towards maintaining consciousness for just about everyone else.
To get to the crux of the matter, a few years back, the New Zealand Actor's Equity, in needing help to unionize their country's burgeoning film industry (which in itself owes Peter Jackson a great deal,) came to an agreement with the Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) which apparently gave the Aussie group some control over the the NZ group in exchange. Now, it seems that muscle is being flexed by the MEAA, who have made the accusations in question towards The Hobbit (NZ's next huge production) which resulted in the Member Alert from the SAG. If we are to take it from Peter Jackson, it is a move motivated purely in taking a valuable chunk out of his country's newly-enjoyed fruits.
"What really does strike me as wrong, and this is my personal opinion, is the why that the MEAA is using NZ Actors Equity as a vehicle to represent the voices and opinions of New Zealand actors. A couple of years ago, the members of NZ Actors Equity voted to join some kind of alliance with the Australian MEAA group. At the time, there were voices of alarm at how this relationship could damage the interest of Kiwi Actors, but the merger went ahead – and now we’re about to find out just how damaging it’s going to be."
Jackson estimates that there are about 2,000 professional actors in New Zealand (many of which hold down day jobs.) Taking what he calls "the most generous numbers," the New Zealand Actor's Equity represents about 200, a mere 10% of that group. As Jackson continues:
"Whenever we cast an “overseas actor”, we get a letter telling us why such and such Kiwi actor would be so much better in the role. In most cases we have already auditioned the actor in question, and formed our own opinions — but what strikes me as unfair, is how this “helpful” service of suggesting better choices only includes the “Equity 200″. If you happen to be a good actor who doesn’t belong to NZ Equity (and many don’t), you’re automatically not good enough to be put forward."
As a result of the allegedly small number of Kiwi actors represented by the NZ Actor's Equity, most of them are retained as independent contractors. Thus, the other major argument being put forward, is that collective bargaining between actors of that status with any labor organization (much less an Australian one) is actually illegal under the NZ Commerce Act. In fact, Jackson maintains that if the situation gets to a certain point, the production of The Hobbit may be forced to relocate entirely to Eastern Europe:
”The “demands” of MEAA cannot be agreed to, or even considered – by law – and therefore the only options that remain involve closing the Hobbit down, or more likely shifting the production to Europe. It could so easily happen. I’ve been told that Disney are no longer bring movies to Australia because of their frustration with the MEAA.”
Jackson concludes his statement with some strong words:
"My personal opinion is that this is a grab for power. It does not represent a problem that needs a solution. There will always be differing opinions when it comes down to work and conditions, but I have always attempted to treat my actors and crew with fairness and respect. We have created a very favourable profit sharing pool for the non-Union actors on The Hobbit — and now the Union is targeting us, despite the fact that we have always respected SAG conditions and residuals."
"I can’t see beyond the ugly spectre of an Australian bully-boy, using what he perceives as his weak Kiwi cousins to gain a foothold in this country’s film industry. They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance. That may well be pushing the conspiracy theories one step too far, and it’s perfectly natural that one Union would support another – but the point is that in the complex web of Hollywood intrigue, you never really know who’s doing what to whom and why." Going on to say: "It sure feels like we are being attacked simply because we are a big fat juicy target – not for any wrong doing. We haven’t even been greenlit yet! It feels as if we have a large Aussie cousin kicking sand in our eyes … or to put it another way, opportunists exploiting our film for their own political gain."
You can read Jackson's entire statement in the source link, but I think I gave it a pretty decent CliffsNotes treatment.
So, despite the prospect of rescue by Spyglass Entertainment, it seems that yet another set of chains have been placed upon the diminutive back of The Hobbit. Can it survive?