In the years that have followed since the release of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films, many fans eagerly hoped to see J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit adapted for the big screen. Initially standing in the way of progress was the lawsuit between Jackson and New Line Cinema, throughout which both parties swore they would never again work together. Eventually, the issue was resolved and “The Hobbit” on its way to being made. Unfortunately, the film would face even more trouble along the way, beginning with unsuccessful attempts to unionise the production.
Jonathan Handel, a contributing editor for The Hollywood Reporter, has released a new book on the dispute, appropriately titled The New Zealand Hobbit Crisis. The book includes revised news reports and updates surrounding the period of September-October 2010, in which tensions were high and it seemed quite possible that the country could lose the $500M production.
New Zealand, Handel explained to me, is the “only country with an English-language film business where the film business is non-unionized.” Actors are referred to as independent contractors, rather than employees, meaning they work for themselves as opposed to being on staff.
He added that, “in NZ, apparently, only employees, and not independent contractors, can be unionised. In the U.S., management is not required to acknowledge a supposed union of independent contractors, but I believe it can if it wants to (i.e., there’s no prohibition on recognition).”
Following the “do not work” order placed on the production by unions such as SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) and NZAE (New Zealand Actors’ Equity), and the subsequent threats by Warner Bros. to move the production, the New Zealand government fought to keep “The Hobbit” on Kiwi soil – a rescue which cost the country an additional $25M in tax incentives and called for a change in legislation which Handel said “effectively prohibits unionisation of the film (and video game) business.”
“The unions,” he noted, “are still angry” over the new legislation.
Last month, the Ombudsman ordered the release of documents relating to the crisis, including e-mails between Jackson and government officials, despite Warner Bros.’ insistence that it would be a major disincentive to pursue future filming ventures within the country.
In the 41 pages of released documents, it is revealed that the government was well aware that the unions had lifted their ban on “The Hobbit” prior to the public announcement; another e-mail revealed that there was never any intention on New Line’s part to move the production out of the country. Now, many feel as though Jackson and the Hollywood studios bullied the New Zealand government into changing their labour laws to keep actors out of the reach of unions.
September 25 – Several unions representing actors from Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia advise their members not to work on the non-unionised production
September 26 – Sir Peter Jackson responds to the boycotts, saying that New Zealand law prevents them from agreeing to the “demands” of the union; the only options, he says, are to either shut down the production or move it out of the country
October 3 –Phillipa Boyens states in an interview that other countries are now bidding for “The Hobbit”
October 15 – “The Hobbit” films are greenlit
October 18 – Unions lift their ban on “The Hobbit”; the Government denies that the boycotts have ended
October 20 – It is announced that “The Hobbit” is ready to move filming out of the country; hours later, another statement is issued, revealing that the boycotts have been lifted
October 27 – It is announced that “The Hobbit” films will remain in New Zealand
October 28 – At Warner Bros.’ urging, New Zealand changes its labour law
Jonathan Handel is an entertainment and technology lawyer, as well as a contributing editor for The Hollywood Reporter. For additional reading on the Hobbit Crisis, his book, The New Zealand Hobbit Crisis, is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle editions.
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