Peter Jackson irate over union behavior

As more thesps sign on to “The Hobbit,” New Line and Warner Bros. are leaning toward keeping the films in New Zealand now that the threat of a boycott by Kiwi actors has eased.

Studio insiders say staying in New Zealand makes the most sense because that’s where helmer Peter Jackson shot the three “The Lord of the Rings” films. Sets are still in place from those productions.

Publicly, New Line and WB say they are still considering other locations in the wake of the strife stirred up by New Zealand Actors’ Equity and other unions, which took action because “Hobbit” producers refused to sign a deal with New Zealand performers.

That boycott has been called off, and SAG and AFTRA have backed off of their opposition.

“The actions of these unions have caused us substantial damage and disruption and forced us to consider other filming locations for the first time,” Warner Bros. and New Line said in a statement issued Thursday in the U.S. “Alternative locations are still being considered.”

One option is the same studio in the U.K. where Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter” franchise was shot.

But insiders close to the situation stressed that there is a desire to keep “The Hobbit” in Jackson’s home country. Filmmaker is scheduled to start shooting the first film in the two-pic “Hobbit” series in February.

New Line and Warners execs will travel to New Zealand early next week to meet with government officials, including Prime Minister John Key and Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee.

There’s a possibility that the government will sweeten the pot with increased tax credits to keep the $500 million “Hobbit” shoot in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s Finance Minister Bill English refused to rule out such action. “The government is taking an interest in the issue, and the government will collectively make a decision about that,” he reportedly said.

As “Hobbit’s” location drama plays out, producers have been busy rounding out the key cast. New Line confirmed Thursday that Martin Freeman will play Bilbo Baggins in both pics. Richard Armitage will play Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the Dwarves. Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis have long been set to reprise their roles from the “Rings” pics as Gandalf and Gollum, respectively.

In a TV interview on Thursday, Jackson put the blame for “The Hobbit” crisis on a handful of actors who “do not actually understand the real repercussions and the situation.”

Talking to New Zealand’s TVOne, Jackson also took aim at Council of Trade Unions prexy Helen Kelly, saying she was “behaving like someone who thinks she knows about filmmaking and who hasn’t got a god-damn clue.”

Kelly has argued that “The Hobbit” is being lured overseas by lucrative incentive offers, and that Warner Bros. has known since Sunday that the boycott was set to be lifted.

“Up until a month ago, no one had even thought in a million years that this movie was going to leave the country. And then this blacklist was brought on, and the studio said, ‘What the hell is going on?,’ and we tried to figure out what the hell was going on,” Jackson said. “At that point confidence in our country as a stable base to make movies started to erode.”

New Line and Warner Bros. disputed Kelly’s claim.

“It was not until (Wednesday) that we received confirmation of the retractions from SAG, NZ Equity and AFTRA through press reports,” Warners and New Line said. “We are still awaiting retractions from other guilds.”

(Justin Kroll contributed to this report.)

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