Hobbit Trouble

@publicaddress: TrendsMap over Wellington tonight

So the word from those in the biz is that filming on The Hobbit has already been lost to NZ. The decision has been made to take it elsewhere – 3News said Ireland. This afternoon and evening the local film industry types, summonsed to a meeting by Richard Taylor himself, decided to get their voice heard about the risk to the NZ film industry.

The source of the trouble is an NZ actor’s union dispute. It is, to be frank, too complex for me to understand, let alone summarize. (Theatreview has a big set of links tracking the whole thing, and Steve Hickey tries to make sense of it all.) In fact, my impression is that the actor/union side of the dispute is incoherent. I haven’t seen a concise statement of the problem anywhere. There are claims that it’s an Aussie union, perhaps backed by a US union, trying to get NZ on to the same playing field.

But it’s safe to say that losing The Hobbit wasn’t the goal of the actors who came in on the union side. Especially because if that goes, then it’s hard to see any other major shooting jobs coming here in future. NZs film industry would wither, fast, reduced to digital effects and post-production work.

So what the heck has gone wrong? This has got much bigger, with much more at stake, than anyone expected. My take, for whatever it’s worth, is that the entire NZ scene has become pawns in a bigger game. The actors (who I’m sure have real concerns) have been pulled into a unionisation debate by overseas agencies which have clear incentives to bring NZ into line with their approach, regardless of the outcome for NZ. This dispute has then fed opposition within the studio to filming in NZ as opposed to other, cheaper locations – it is a pretext for running the numbers again and forcing a move elsewhere. The big players are international. The NZ scene is almost a sideshow in its own story.

This is a bit of a harsh critique in that it denies real agency to the local actors. Am I really justified in seeing the actors’ demands as problematic because they haven’t issued a clear public statement of their goals? If so, it doesn’t speak well of the capacity of actors to manage their own affairs.

That said, I think it’s undeniable that the actors have demonstrated no strategic leadership throughout this affair. The lack of public communication is one aspect, but even simply making a clear case has been a challenge.

And I should also emphasize that I’m sympathetic to the aims of a union. Unions are important tools for social equity – that’s clearcut.

My concern is that this union dispute, at this time, on this issue, is surely having consequences that those caught up in it did not intend. Sitting back and saying the decision to go to Ireland was driven by WB wanting to save money and not by the actors’ demands – well, it might make you feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that the industry’s gone. The truth is, obviously, that the film industry globally is a haven for exploitative practices. There are good reasons why contracting is the default here in Wgtn and wider NZ, and yes that contracting will sometimes lead to exploitation, but the situation is complex enough that simplistic “workers need a union” claims won’t necessarily turn out to be appropriate. These complex reasons need to be addressed. This would be suggested by pragmatism, and also by awareness of the large interrelated nature of the film industry – if part of it goes, it all goes.

There are many other aspects of this sad tale that could be addressed – the dearth of leadership from the Beehive, for example. But I’m going to go to sleep instead, for I am tired and my eyes are droopy. Here’s hoping that the film can get tied down in this country after all.

EDITED TO ADD: a big post from industry worker Dan on this stuff.

ALSO: Radio NZ interviews with Fran Walsh, Pip Boyens, Helen Kelly, Dave Brown

Robyn Malcolm interview audio in the sidebar on the Stuff story

Russell Brown pulls the threads together: Anatomy of a Shambles

EDITED 5.50pm: Helen Kelly comments on Russell’s post, and Russell replies with exactly the right question.

Dan, of that link just above, was interviewed on bFM midday or so. I thought he did very well indeed. His post has been generating lots of discussion and comment.

(I wrote this post just after midnight last night. I think it stands up pretty well after a long day of charged conversation and reportage. Still no idea what’s going to happen to “Wellywood”…)

EDITED 9pm: via Jack of TallPoppy, some people who were there claim the “Robyn Malcolm abused/police escort needed” story is a fabrication

17 thoughts on “Hobbit Trouble”

  1. I don’t know tons about it, but Robyn Malcolm claimed on Morning Report today that the union are being scapegoated and that the real reason The Hobbit is being taken overseas is that the government is not offering competitive tax incentives. She said something like, “We’re not powerful enough to derail the whole movie – we’re not even the coffee budget.”

    She also claimed that the boycott had already been lifted but that they were gagged from talking about it until today, and that the industry protestors did not know this when they marched yesterday.

    You can listen to the interview on the Morning Report page, rather than relying on my notoriously unreliable memory:


  2. I listened to the later interviews, with a furious Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, and with Helen Kelly talking in circles. Malcolm’s right that the actors “aren’t even the coffee budget” but they’ve clearly had a large effect, probably much larger than expected.

  3. housemonkey: yep, check out the comments on the Stuff story for whatever proof you need of that. Russell Brown’s article smartly contrasts this union action to what the Irish equivalent did.

  4. Maybe I’m harsh or naive, but it seems to me that if the entire industry can fall over on the basis of a single project falling through – even one as big as this – then there’s a fundamental problem with the way it’s being run as a whole.

  5. Pearce: perhaps true. But as you well know, film is notoriously tricksy, involving huge multi-million-dollar gambles. We don’t hold the money here and we never will – so we must build an industry solely on being a reliable bet. The thing is, *so must everyone else*. How the hell can this be “fixed”?

  6. Best typo in one of the comments to Dan’s post: “Well i think i will boycott the file all together if it is made overseas.”

  7. Funny how NZEA have gone after Outrageous Fortune and The Hobbit, but not Sparticus. One hopes that’s because the conditions are so fabulous, rather than the president’s connections with Rob Tappert.

  8. morgue: on the one hand, I get what you mean.

    On the other hand, the NZ film industry seems to have a staggering inability to nurture local talent in general.

  9. No, the NZ film industry is able to nurture local talent. More so than the UK film industry which, for starters, is completely cottage and since the announcement of the Film Council closure (with no replacement body seeing the BFI don’t want to handle the tasks of the Council) has a lot of filmmakers over there up in arms about where to go.

    The NZ Film Commission, for all it’s flaws, is an ardent supporter of NZ filmmakers with a number of funds available (disclaimer: I was a temp for them and have a number of friends who worked bloody hard for that organisation). There is a lot of work still be done there and no one is ever going to be happy with how it operated (are any of us really satisfied with CNZ and their funding decisions?).

    We’re a young industry, enviably so, where you don’t need an agent to get things made (you do almost everywhere else) and there aren’t a number of barriers between a first time filmmaker and a seasoned veteran.

    This whole affair has me livid. If the production goes off shore, that’s a lot of techies who lose work and, in turn, cash that won’t be spend in NZ on goods and services to house, clothe and feed them.

    Yes, the film industry is fragile and studios are fickle, but that’s the way it’s always been. They will go to wherever they can make the most amount of money for the least amount of hassle.

    WB have played this to their advantage, no doubt (I’d go as far as to say that they’ve always wanted an out but Peter Jackson has wanted to stay in NZ, and with good reason too – the further you are away from a studio, the less ability they have to interfere). And you’re right, Morgue, this is part of a much bigger game that is being played in Hollywood who, let’s face it, OWN this industry.

  10. Sonal: obviously you have more first-hand knowledge than I do as an industry insider, but speaking as an ardent filmgoer & DVD renter, the profile of NZ movies within NZ seems to me to be very low.

    Maybe I’m just angry that the NZ Film Commission’s “Classic Film” series seems to have been dubbed from VHS to DVD using home equipment. The ones I’ve seen resemble public domain movies released by fly-by-night rip-off merchants. I’ll admit that this has nothing to do with nurturing talent, but to me it has an attitude of “Who cares?”

  11. Oh I absolutely agree on that front – no once seems to care about what happens after the film is “new” or take responsibility to maintain and restore of our cinematic history. I guess that’s something NZ on Screen is trying to start, but it takes a lot of money.

    Something to do with whoever they sign a distribution contract with for that platform (which was probably done cos it was a mate/cheap/negotiating chip for something else … god this business is cynical!) Not that I understand the profit driven ideology behind DVD releasing such as the substandard DVDs you’ve seen to “Titus” and “Hurt Locker” having the director’s commentaries only on US zoned discs.

    On the (against all logic) plus side, our neglect of film has meant that a few lost gems like John Ford’s “Upstream” appears in someone’s shed.

  12. Sonal: It’s a damned shame – it seems that our cinematic heritage is only accessible by paying attention to Film Archive screenings.

    Meanwhile over in Australia, the most low-brow Aussie exploitation movies are getting high-quality releases with great transfers and tons of well-produced bonus features.

    The only really first-rate vintage NZ-movie dvds I’ve found are Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace – and those were put together by a boutique American company with a fetish for small films.

  13. “One hopes that’s because the conditions are so fabulous, rather than the president’s connections with Rob Tappert.”

    The president’s pretty cosy with at least one of the directors as well.

  14. Pearce – the man driving the Ozploitation releases onto DVD is Quentin Tarantino. He’s a massive fan of Brian Trenchard-Smith (highly recommend “Not Quite Hollywood” if you haven’t seen it already).

    NZ film needs a geek patron who would be willing to do the same.

  15. Sonal: cheers, yeah I’ve seen that – I’ve been a fan of some of those movies for ages. I wonder if Tarantino was as big a fan of Trenchard-Smith’s later movies, e.g. Leprechaun In Space?

    Sometimes things come from odd quarters, e.g. the US company Blue Underground, who usually release exploitation & horror films, put out a deluxe dvd of My Brilliant Career just because the company founder is a fan.

  16. Pearce, just a thought about you comment earlier about the industry as a whole. The “industry as a whole”, being the industry that produces mass-market films for the English-speaking worldwide audience is just fine; except, of course, for the dearth of creativity that comes with budgets routinely being in the nine figures; which creates a natural aversion to risk as compared to budgets in the seven figure range.

    This whole thing speaks loudly of how the film industry is internationally mobile in a way that, really very few others are. Film production may work best in a settled studio environment from the perspective of some more lucid viewers, but when it comes to raming bums on seats it doesn’t matter where it’s filmed or if Michael Bay or Uwe Boll direct.

    I imagine the biggest win for WB in all this is our government chipping in on promotion costs; that’s the biggest money-maker on an endeavour like this for the studio.

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