Was the row about The Hobbit a historic moment in New Zealand labour relations? It certainly looks like one for anyone attempting to justify a “right wing” labour agenda.
Pushed by international actors’ unions into stirring up the issue of minimum “employment” conditions and allowing talk of a Hobbit “boycott” to go unchecked for days, Actors’ Equity in New Zealand ineptly attempted to whip up solidarity among the workers, but found it rather thin on the ground.
Actors and crews in New Zealand appear to prefer to be contractors. In fact, all Equity was arguing for was a better minimum contract, but that got lost in the overheated scrum created by the heretical thought of losing Middle Earth to Transylvania.
These people and the companies they run are happy with the idea of a minimal conditions contract for a big budget feature film – which is actually already on offer and looks surprisingly good. What they weren’t interested in was making such a fuss.
Add to that the unexpected Warner Bros. offer of “residuals” payments as part of a standard contract for The Hobbit, and it looks as if the major studios just won a round in the labour costs war rather convincingly, to the likely betterment of the New Zealand film industry.
New Zealand’s highly talented, competitively priced and best of all pragmatic film workforce remains flexible and affordable, except that local participants get a new incentive to do the best job they can possibly do on the film, to improve the long term “residuals” – returns from the lifetime earnings of a hit movie as a multi-media product.
If that’s not the strategy that’s been employed here, then it should have been.
But it also means that the loveys who were part of Helen Clark’s political bedrock turn out, on inspection, to be entrepreneurial, small businesspeople with a distinctly Employment Contracts Act outlook on life.
They are the seniors, in their 30s to 50s, of a generation of 18 to 30 year-olds who expect to work more than one part-time job,
and to be endlessly on call or cancellable. It sucks, but it doesn’t occur to them that a union might help them out.
My theory is that it’s very significant that Warner Bros. is offering residuals contracts – upside for actors if the film succeeds – and that it’s a reward to the way the NZ film industry works – highly flexible, non-unionised.
The big film companies don’t offer this in the US, Australia, UK and it frightens these English-speaking crews and actors to think more work will end up in NZ.
It’s tempting to speculate that they got wind of the residuals part of the proposed deal and tried to derail it by trumping up a “boycott” – which actually never existed – and having the Australian union director, Simon Whipp, in New Zealand all last week, with the local president, Jennifer Ward-Lealand virtually incommunicado to media.
Would English-speaking actors’ unions in the US, UK, Australia and Canada, on getting wind of the residuals offer on The Hobbit be so concerned as to try and wreck the production rather than allow such a powerful entrenchment of contractually incentivised employment?
Tempting, but a long bow, although with American unions describing New Zealand productions as “runaways” that should never have left the US, there is at the very least a conflict of interest between unions representing actors in crews in competing countries.
The observation is all the more tempting when the relationship between Actor’s Equity in New Zealand and its Australian master, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, is examined.
In a barely reported admission on TV3’s The Nation last Sunday, it was revealed that Actors’ Equity was deregistered last week, having failed to lodge annual returns for three years – a classic sign of poor governance that would leave an organisation wide-open for manipulation.
President Jennifer Ward-Lealand conceded on The Nation that this loss of legitimacy to represent New Zealand actors was indeed an “administrative error”, but indicated that since the New Zealand union is strictly a chapter of the MEAA, it was led out of Sydney by Whipp, the MEAA’s national director.
Could this be why Ward-Lealand was widely reported as being unavailable to media, and why the New Zealand union’s position was allowed to remain unclear for days, creating maximum instability around The Hobbit, which has struggled to be green-lit but is close.
Certainly, Whipp was in New Zealand last week when The Hobbit mess blew, and was the butt of Sir Peter Jackson’s initial, provocative charge of Aussie bullying which kicked the story off.
At the very least, the institutional weakness of the actors’ union can be seen to be ripe for manipulation by a bigger foreign agenda, which might stretch the bonds of Solidarity Forever, if successful.