The start of the shooting of the much-delayed movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which will be a prequel to the super-successful The Lord of the Rings cinema trilogy, is threatened by union troubles.
Sir Peter Jackson, the New Zealand film director who won Oscars and a knighthood for helming and producing the three epic Lord of the Rings pictures, has threatened to shoot his new film The Hobbit in Eastern Europe due to demands from actors unions for more equitable treatment. The unions are demanding that the production adhere to the exigencies of a union contract.
The shoot is an expensive one, and one of the studios backing the picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, recently declared bankruptcy. According to the New York Times, The Hobbit — which will be shot in 3D and split into two movies — has a budget of $500 million. The lack of financing from M-G-M has meant that Warner Bros. has entered the picture, which also is being produced by New Line Pictures.
The Hobbit has yet to receive the “green light,” a certified start date, likely due to the huge financial commitment required to bring Tolkein’s world back to the big screen in the now-standard 3D technology required by “tent pole” productions.
Peter Jackson took over the direction of the picture after the original director, Guillermo Del Toro, quit the picture in June.
The Hobbit, which originally was supposed to start shooting in 2009, has been hobbled by many production delays. The movie is being produced by Jackson’s Wingnut Films and the director intends to shoot in in New Zealand, unless Australasian actors unions refuse to cooperate with him.
The director is also the producer of the film, a double duty he pulled on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for the last entry of the trilogy, The Return of the King, making him a certifiable cinema legend. The three movies grossed in excess of $1 billion in the U.S. alone.
Due to the enormous cost of bringing The Hobbit to the screen, Jackson apparently has failed to offer his actors a standard union contract, instead threatening to pull the production out of New Zealand.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), an Australian actors union, has actually called on its members to boycott the film due to the substandard terms offered to performers. According to Simon Whipp, the national director of the MEAA, under the terms of The Hobbit contract, actors could be terminated with one day’s notice. In addition, Jackson has not committed the production to paying standard union royalty fees, such as a guaranteed percentage of income generated from DVD sales.
The stars of the film, Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving — both Australians — and the Englishman Sir Ian McKellen, support the boycott, according to the MEAA. All three appeared in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Producer-director Peter Jackson has called the MEAA an “Australian bully-boy.”
Fellow New Zealand movie producer John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures has said that the MEAA is no longer a corporate entity in New Zealand, which means that Jackson couldn’t negotiate with the Australian union even if it wanted to. MEAA lost its corporation status three years ago for failing to file financial reports and thus no longer has legal standing in New Zealand.
“The Australian union has absolutely no interest in what happens in New Zealand,” Barnett said, while Jackson believes the MEAA is trying to increase its membership — and the income it takes in from union dues and fees — by re-entering Australia.
On his part, Jackson issued a statement claiming that he was “not anti-union in the slightest” and that he always honored actors’ union “conditions.” (“Conditions” is different than “contract.”) However, he proceeded to attack the MEAA and accuse the union of cupidity.
“I can’t see beyond the ugly specter of an Australian bully-boy using what he perceives as his weak Kiwi cousins to gain a foothold in this country’s film industry,” Jackson’s statement declared. “They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance.”
Jackson has intimated he has back-up plans to shoot the film elsewhere, and has said the loss of The Hobbit will be devastating to the New Zealand movie industry.
“If The Hobbit goes east — Eastern Europe, in fact — look forward to a long dry big budget movie drought in this country,” he threatened.
Sir Peter Jackson’s threats to turn The Hobbit into a “runaway production” so far have not cowed New Zealand’s Actor’s Equity. The New Zealand union said it does not want to cause the movie to switch production to another country, but issued a statement calling on Jackson to negotiate with the union. The statement came after a meeting of union members.
Actors Equity President Jennifer Ward-Lealand said that the union has been trying to meet with Jackson and the producers for a month. She issued a statement on behalf of union members calling on “the producers of The Hobbit to hold negotiations in good faith.”
Ward-Lealand said, “NZ Actors Equity is concerned that local actors working on the production receive a fair and equitable contract, just as their international colleagues will do.”
New York Times, “Big Hairy Feet, Now in 3-D?”
Sydney Morning Herald, “NZ stars want to talk with Hobbit makers”
Sydney Morning Herald, Boycott threatens Hobbit films