September 27, 2010 / 12:59 AM / 9 years ago

Unions urge "Hobbit" boycott, angering Jackson

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - All is not well in Middle Earth.

Producer Peter Jackson speaks before a preview and panel session for the upcoming movie "District 9" during the 40th annual Comic Con Convention in San Diego July 24, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The Hollywood actors guilds and several international unions have issued an alert against the big-budget adaptation of “The Hobbit,” stating that their members “are advised not to accept work on this non-union production.” The guilds say the producers of the MGM/New Line fantasy blockbuster, to be directed by Peter Jackson, have rebuffed organizing efforts by the New Zealand unit of an Australian actors union.

Jackson shot back in a long statement issued on Sunday, hammering Australia’s Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) union, threatening to move the “Hobbit” shoot to Europe and claiming his film is being used as a political football to secure gains for the guild.

“It sure feels like we are being attacked simply because we are a big fat juicy target — not for any wrong doing,” Jackson said. “It feels as if we have a large Aussie cousin kicking sand in our eyes ... or to put it another way, opportunists exploiting our film for their own political gain.”

MEAA’s Simon Whipp told The Hollywood Reporter that success with “The Hobbit” might pave the way for unionizing other productions in the country, but he also said that in a secret ballot held earlier in the decade, about 80% of 800 Kiwi actors voted to have MEAA open a New Zealand branch. MEAA did so in 2006.

Whipp also expressed hope that Jackson would be “the key to unlocking a solution.” That does not seem likely now.

“The Hobbit” is not officially greenlighted but Jackson, his WingNut Films and Weta Digital have been actively preparing the adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. The “Lord of the Rings” director has been casting the two-film “Rings” prequel for an anticipated 2011 shoot, while New Line parent Warner Bros. and the financially troubled MGM work out an arrangement to finance and distribute the pictures.

The labor discord in Jackson’s home country of New Zealand, where “Hobbit” will likely be shot, has simmered for several weeks. MEAA, the International Federation of Actors (FIA), and others have written to the producers objecting to the refusal to sign a union contract.

MEAA has not managed to unionize any productions in New Zealand, making the country a sore spot for actors’ unions across the English-speaking world. The unions allege that productions relocate to New Zealand specifically to avoid union terms.

But Jackson, in his statement, said targeting “The Hobbit” could have the opposite effect, chasing productions from the country and “endangering” the hundreds of millions of dollars that might flow into New Zealand from back-to-back “Hobbit” films.

“Why is this endangered? Because the ‘demands’ of MEAA cannot be agreed to, or even considered — by law — and therefore the only options that remain involve closing ‘The Hobbit’ down, or more likely shifting the production to Europe,” Jackson said in the statement. “It could so easily happen. I’ve been told that Disney are no longer bring movies to Australia because of their frustration with the MEAA.”

Jackson and the film’s producers claim that actors are independent contractors, making union representation illegal under New Zealand law. MEAA disagrees, citing a court case involving crew members, and adds that there are alternative approaches that wouldn’t run afoul of the law: either issuing a non-mandatory contract that provides better terms for actors, or creating a joint venture between the production entity and the union.

The dispute ratcheted up on Friday with the member alert from actors unions in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

“The (MEAA) agreement for large-budget international studio films ... provides for residuals that are equivalent to those under the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) agreement,” the member alert states. “The residuals proposed by the producers of ‘The Hobbit’ are less in every respect.”

A New Line spokesperson declined to comment, and Jackson was careful to say his views are not necessarily those of the studio. Reps for MGM, SAG, FIA and the producers were not immediately available for comment.

The U.S. actors guilds are known to issue member alerts of this sort from time to time, but it is extremely rare for a major studio film to be targeted.

For SAG and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) members, the advisory essentially constitutes a Do Not Work order.

For instance, a SAG member working on the production would be in violation of the guild’s Global Rule 1. That rule generally requires members not to work on productions not signed to a SAG agreement. SAG and AFTRA have posted the order on their websites, and the Association of Talent Agents forwarded the order on Saturday morning to its members.

Jackson said in his statement that New Line parent Warner Bros. planned to go beyond what was required and create a separate pot of profits to pay Kiwi actors who are not SAG members.

“Whatever damage MEAA is attempting to do — and it will do damage, since that’s their principal objective in targeting ‘The Hobbit’ — we will continue to treat our actors and crew with respect, as we always have,” Jackson said.

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