Hard News by Russell Brown


Yet More Hobbit

Just a quick update for those of you without the time (and fortitude) to wade through nearly 500 comments on the original Hobbit thread:

Just before midnight on Saturday, CTU president Helen Kelly posted the following short note to the thread:

Media advisory re The Hobbit

Helen Kelly, CTU President has met with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh and we are hopeful that a meaningful dialogue between Equity, SPADA, and Three Foot Seven can be established.


Some people have taken the news that people are talking as evidence that it's done and dusted, and The Hobbit will be made in New Zealand. It really isn't.

Philippa Boyens told Kathryn Ryan this morning that Warner has accountants "doing the numbers" on five or six alternative locations for the film, and that interests in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Eastern Europe all began lobbying to get the production as soon as the Screen Actors' Guild "non-union production" advisory was published.

I'm still not clear what is being sought by the union. Helen Kelly told me on Friday they weren't seeking a (legally problematic) collective agreement.

On the some day Actors' Equity organiser Frances Walsh spoke to the Herald:

Many of the issues the union were seeking to negotiate related to basic conditions such as accommodation, smoking, nudity, credits and not just pay

"We can only say, hey, what we'd like on this production is a fair suck of the sav. We would like to negotiate with you fair terms and conditions for the engagement of New Zealand performers on the Hobbit."

It seems highly unlikely that there will be nudity in The Hobbit. In fact, there won't. What Equity is trying to do is to negotiate an industry-wide agreement via Peter Jackson. As things stand, the actor contracts being drawn up for The Hobbit will be the best New Zealand screen actors have ever received for work in New Zealand; they even include the first provision for residual payments. They blow anything a local producer could offer out of the water.

It would be unethical and crazy for Jackson to participate in talks on such a basis.

I confess, my attitude has hardened a lot since I read that story.

Later, Robyn Malcolm and Jennifer Ward-Lealand appeared on Campbell Live, where the host repeatedly asked them what they wanted. Malcolm said they wanted "a fair deal for NZ actors working on the Hobbit" and then a few seconds later said they wanted an agreement that was "not Hobbit-specific". So they do want an industry agreement?

Ward-Lealand declared "we would love to get in the room with Spada", which represents screen producers. But, I'm told, Spada offered on Friday to "get in the room" and received no response from the union. Indeed, it's been trying to "get in the room" with Actors' Equity for 18 months.

She said the dispute was "in Sir Peter's hands to resolve", and then that Jackson could be in "the conversation", "if he wants to be in the room," with Three Foot Seven, the Warner company that is producing the film. These two statements don't seem to tally.

They also mentioned a desire to negotiate a clause on nudity in screen productions. But not, obviously, for The Hobbit. Frankly, if there was a problem here, then Actors' Equity could and should have raised it when Spada asked it to renegotiate the "Pink Book" code of practice 18 months ago. Until Equity became a subsidiary of the Australian MEAA union, it would sit down with Spada every year and renegotiate the Pink Book (much as the craft unions and guilds still do with the so-called Blue Book). That hasn't happened for five years.

And hey, there is a section on the handling of nudity in screen roles in the Pink Book.

20. Nudity 20.1. The following guidelines will apply with regard to nudity:

(a) The production company will notify the cast member of any nudity that is required as part of their performance as soon as the production company knows of the requirement, whether that is before or after the signing of the contract. Unless the cast member has specifically consented, he/she may refuse to carry out any part of the performance involving their nudity.

(b) Where a cast member does not consent to appear nude and the production company proposes to substitute a double, the production company will obtain the consent of the cast member, acceptance of which will not be unreasonably denied.

(c) With the exception of the final rehearsal for camera and lighting, there will be no rehearsals in the nude or semi-nude.

(d) During the rehearsal or shooting of nude or semi-nude scenes, the set will be closed to all persons, except those having a legitimate reason for being present. Observation by monitor or any other means will be prohibited, except where that is necessary as part of the production process.

Is there anything wrong with the code here? Is anyone breaching it? Could the actors provide some examples? Actor's Equity needs to talk to Spada – and to do so without a precondition that represents a reversal of existing practices. Indeed, it needs to get itself legally registered again and start engaging with the rest of its industry.

It don't really know where this will go, but it seems that the CTU's involvement has been helpful. I hope progress can be made, and I do think that actors are in a different position to most other screen industry workers (many of whom, by the look of the anti-boycott petition, are quite angry with the actors). The fact that their images can be used in products related to the films they appear in is a good example of that.

But at some point, they're going to have to face up to the motivations of the US Screen Actors' Guild. The SAG letter sent out last October – in response to questions raised "now that [MEAA] has opened a branch in New Zealand" -- warns that Australian or New Zealand Actors are only allowed to work on productions under either an SAG agreement or "a Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance collective bargaining agreement" (which, remember, is apparently not what's being sought by the union, and isn't legal if the actors are working as independent contractors).

This is the requirement of Global Rule One, an extension of the SAG global practice which is covered in the widely-cited paper by Kathryn E. Pietrolungo and Brian Tinkham, Global Rule One: Sag's Answer to Runaway Production, which describes it as "a SAG contractual provision primarily used to prevent Hollywood producers from leaving California to pursue film projects in Canada," or, essentially, anywhere other than California.

SAG's unilateral move in adding the word "Global" to its existing Rule One provision was highly controversial, not least among non-US trade unions themselves, and the American Federation of Labor. The MEAA itself protested before become the first foreign union to sign an agreement which included a waiver allowing SAG actors to work on lower-budget Australian productions without a SAG contract.

If the original intention was to stop SAG members running away to foreign productions, last October's letter from SAG does something different. It seeks to prevent New Zealanders working on films in New Zealand except under collective bargaining agreements written in either Australia or the US, whether they are MEAA/Equity members or not.

None of this has formed part of the "conversation" this past week, and it really needs to be talked about in a frank and grown-up fashion, because it's clearly the end goal for at least some parties.

And when the actors do start talking, they need to think carefully about their approach to a provision whose primary purpose is to prevent big screen productions being made in New Zealand.

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