FILM

The Hobbit and the facts

Monday 27 September 2010, 11:46AM
By Steven Colbard
5576 views , 4 comments


The makers of feature film The Hobbit – to be shot in New Zealand next year – are refusing to engage performers on union-negotiated agreements.

Members of Canadian Actors Equity, US Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild, UK Actors Equity, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (Australia) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists have been advised not to accept work on this non-union production.

Peter Jackson responded to the allegations about non-union contracts with a few "facts".

Here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/local/4169140/Peter-Jacksons-response-to-union-claims=

This article adds some of the facts he left out.

"Personally speaking, I’m not anti-Union in the slightest. I’m a very proud and loyal member of three Hollywood Unions – the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild. I support the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). All these organisations (I must confess I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between a “Guild” and a “Union”) do terrific work on behalf of their members."

No-one ever suggested Peter or the producers were anti-union. The materials distrubted by the actor's unions to their members say nothing of the sort. They simply articulate the fact that the producers refuse to negotiate fair union contracts with them. Have a look. http://www.actorsequity.org.nz/hobbit_fact_sheet.pdf

"Many Actors are members of SAG, but many are not — especially younger actors and many Australian and New Zealand performers. MEAA claims we are “non-Union”, but whenever we hire an actor who belongs to SAG, we always honour their working conditions, their minimum salary agreements and their residuals."

No claim has been made suggesting The Hobbit is non union - simply that the production is aiming to employ New Zealand performers on non-union contracts by refusing to negotiate with NZ Actor's Equity.

"These residuals can be worth tens of thousands of dollars to an individual if the film is successful – however the normal situation is that if an actor is not a member of SAG, they do not share in the profit pot. This has always struck us as unfair, since most Kiwi actors are not lucky enough to be SAG members. For the Hobbit, Warner Brothers have agreed to create a separate pot of profit participation, which will be divided up amongst non-SAG actors who are cast in the film. This was not done because of any pressure from Guilds or Unions – it was actually Warners doing the decent thing, and New Zealand and Australian actors will be the principle beneficiaries. SAG members have their pot, and non-SAG members now have theirs. We have introduced the scheme to Kiwi agents and it’s now part of all our Hobbit cast deals."

What the producers have offered is far below international standard of SAG and the distribution of these residuals is not clearly articulated in any contract used so far in NZ. These residuals are significantly less than the MEAA usual agreements in every respect. Kiwis will be paid less than anyone else who might be engaged to do the same work. Fair?

Also if Kiwi performers are contracted subject to the standing NZ guidelines the usual provisions of the New Zealand contract would apply. These include a provision which permit the producer to terminate the contract at any time without obligation to pay out the performer’s contract. This provision could also be used to justify non-payment of any residual obligation which may have been agreed above (even after the performer has performed all their work on the film and even if the performer’s work is used in the film).

This clause alone makes the residual offer above meaningless.

"Whatever damage MEAA is attempting to do — and it will do damage, since that’s their principal objective in targeting The Hobbit – we will continue to treat our actors and crew with respect, as we always have."

However earlier films such as Lord of the Rings, international performers were protected by their unions and Kiwis worked on contracts with conditions that were signifcantly lower than their international counterparts. In fact some of the Kiwis on the that film sued New Line over the money made from merchandising and it was settled out of court.

"As I said earlier, money and power lies behind this threatening behaviour from our Australian cousins, and to fully understand that, you simply have to step back and look at the greater picture in context. It starts with “NZ Actors Equity”. This is a tiny organisation that represents a small minority of New Zealand Actors. They are not a Union, and have none of the legal status of a Union. They are a … well, a smallish group who have some New Zealand actors as members.

Just some of those New Zealand actors are Dame Kate Harcourt, Jennifer Ward Lealand, Bruce Hopkins, Tandi Wright, Michael Hurst, Cameron Rhodes, Elizabeth McCrae, Stephen Lovatt, Kirk Torrance and Lisa Chappel. Not small names in New Zealand.

"How many actors are members of NZ Equity? They guard that information very closely, but various reports I’ve seen put their membership at 200, although somebody in the know swears it’s nearer 100."

If we are going to engage in rumours a more accurate one (from a member of the National Performers Committee of Equity itself) places membership in excess of 400. Still small but read on ...

"How many professional actors are there in New Zealand? Somewhere between 2000 and 4000, depending on just how you describe a “professional actor”. Obviously most Kiwi actors have other employment too, but there’s certainly over 2000 actors available to cast in a film production."

Actually in the 2006 census the occupation count for actors in New Zealand (ie. those who said they were actors!) was 588 ....  see here http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2006CensusHomePage/classification-counts-tables/about-people/~/media/Statistics/Publications/Census/2006-reports/Classification-Count-Tables/People/occupation-revised.ashx

"So taking the most generous numbers, NZ Actors Equity represents 200 out of 2000 Kiwi actors, or 10%. Perhaps I’m wrong, and if so, NZ Equity will no doubt reveal their real membership numbers."

Taking those alternative stats and calculating suggests NZ Actors Equity represents 68% of NZ actors. Even if you take Peter's "generous" estimate of 200 it's still at least a third.

"Now there’s nothing wrong with NZ Actors Equity representing 10% of the actors in this country. It’s great that they offer that service, and if an actor chooses, there’s a supportive group they can join. Obviously the more actors that join NZ Equity, the better, since these organisations usually survive by taking a small percentage of their members acting fees. I’m guessing that Equity do something like that. Recently they have been part-funded by MEAA."

Actors do pay a small due to help keep their union running. Recently NZ Actor's Equity asked the Australian union for help in asserting their rights. MEAA have been providing this support. NZ Actors Equity is now an independent arms of the MEAA.

"Over the last 10 years our relationship with NZ Equity has been rocky — 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..."

Standard immigration policy all over the world demands that businesses demonstrate that any foreign national they hire doesn't take a job away from a local. 

"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."

One of the many reasons NZ performers voted to accept the support of the MEAA is they were tired of being "mexicans with cellphones" as some of the international producers colourfully called them. Doing the same work on the same productions and being awarded less than their international cousins.

"I personally have a problem with any organisation who represent a small minority, but attempt to take control of everyone – but that’s not the real issue. The complex web of NZ labour laws are the reason why this demand will never be agreed to. NZ law prohibits engaging in collective bargaining with any labour organisation representing performers who are independent contractors, as film actors clearly are. The NZ Commerce Act claims it would be unlawful to engage with an Australian Union on these matters."

However NZ Actors Equity has obtained legal advice that there are a variety of lawful means which could be used to establish the minimum wages, working conditions and residuals for performers on the production. A copy of this advice has been provided to the lawyers for the producer. So somebody has their facts wrong ...

"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."


This emotionally charged statement has been quoted extensively by news media thus far. To be clear it is all of the Australian, American, Canadian and British unions who stand with the NZ performers not just an Australian "bully-boy". They are supporting New Zealand performers at the request of Actors Equity NZ. The request isn't much. A standard union negotiated contract for all New Zealand performers.

Interestingly enough the person complaining about the "Australian bully-boy" (who are involved only to support fair contracts for New Zealand actors) is the one who is perpetuating unfair conditions on his own country men. A Kiwi exploiting his own?

"But 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."

Or it could be viewed as the acting community of the world standing up for the rights of a small group.