New Zealand film director Sir Peter Jackson has lobbed a grenade across the ditch, accusing an “Australian bully boy” actors union of threatening to derail his big budget Hollywood fantasy The Hobbit.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has joined the Screen Actors Guild and a group of six other international labour unions in calling for a boycott of the movie on the grounds that actors may be employed on inferior non-union contracts.
The MEAA claims to have support from A-listers Cate Blanchett, Sir Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving, who are said to be involved in $US150 million The Hobbit project.
In an extraordinary step last night, the notoriously media shy Jackson issued an angry four-page statement accusing the Australian-based MEAA of trying to cash in on the success of the New Zealand film industry by holding movie studio Warner Brothers to ransom.
“I can’t see beyond the ugly spectre of an Australian bully-boy using what he perceives as his weak Kiwi cousins to gain a foothold in this country’s film industry. They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance,” Jackson said.
“I feel growing anger at the way this tiny minority is endangering a project that hundreds of people have worked on over the last two years, and the thousands about to be employed for the next four years, [and] the hundreds of millions of Warner Brothers dollars that is about to be spent in our economy.”
Among the complaints, MEAA national director Simon Whipp said actors could be sacked from the project with just one day’s notice, and there were concerns producers would not pay fees in standard union contracts, such as payments from DVD sales.
The claims have been dismissed as “duplicitous and inaccurate” by South Pacific Pictures chief executive John Barnett, who has joined Jackson in telling the Australian union to butt out of New Zealand’s economic affairs.
Jackson, whose Lord of The Rings trilogy delivered a tourist boon to his home country and put New Zealand on the movie making map, insisted her was not anti-union but warned the boycott would cost thousands of jobs if The Hobbit was forced overseas, including lost opportunities for Aussie actors.
“If The Hobbit goes east (East Europe in fact), look forward to a long, dry, big-budget movie drought in this country,” he said.
“We have done better in recent years with attracting overseas movies and the Australians would like a greater slice of the pie, which begins with them using The Hobbit to gain control of our film industry.”
The Screen Actors Guild issued a members’ alert last week, urging anyone “contacted to be engaged on The Hobbit [to] please notify your union immediately.”
“The makers of feature film The Hobbit – to be shot in New Zealand next year – have refused to engage performers on union-negotiated agreements,” it warned on its website on Friday.
Jackson said the MEAA was using a “small minority” of New Zealand actors to demand that Warner Brothers negotiate an umbrella agreement with all actors on the project – terms the studio could not possibly meet.
“I’ve been told that Disney are no longer bring movies to Australia because of their frustration with the MEAA,” Jackson said.
“NZ law prohibits engaging in collective bargaining with any labour organisation representing performers who are independent contractors, as film actors clearly are. The NZ Commerce Act claims it would be unlawful to engage with an Australian Union on these matters.
“It’s incredibly easy to wave the flag on behalf of workers and target the rich studios. It’s not hard to generate an emotive response, nor is it hard to sway public opinion, since nobody seems to like the facts to get in the way of a good story in these situations.”
“[The] MEAA claims we are ‘non-Union’, but whenever we hire an actor who belongs to SAG, we always honour their working conditions, their minimum salary agreements and their residuals.”
Jackson said having to shoot The Hobbit in another country would leave New Zealand “humiliated on the world stage.”
“Warners would take a financial hit that would cause other studios to steer clear of New Zealand”, he said.
The Lord of The Rings prequel has been dogged with problems including years of delays, doubt over right holder MGM’s ability to finance the project and the surprise exit of former director Guillermo del Toro earlier this year.
While major casting announcements have yet to be made, Spiderman star Tobey McGuire is tipped for the lead role of Bilbo Baggins. The Office actor Martin Freeman is also rumoured to have been considered.