Kiwi court okays ‘Rings’ suit

Modelmaker on Jackson trilogy can claim unfair dismissal

WELLINGTON — New Zealand’s Supreme Court has ruled that a man who built models for “Lord of the Rings” production company Three Foot Six Ltd was an employee, not an independent contractor, and can sue for unjustified dismissal.

The Supreme Court confirmed an earlier employment court decision that upheld a complaint of unjustified dismissal lodged against Three Foot Six by modelmaker James Bryson, who had been made redundant when the models unit was downsized as production wound down on the “Rings” trilogy.

The original court found that Bryson’s relationship with Three Foot Six was more that of an employee than a contractor for several reasons, chiefly that he received training, worked fixed hours, was paid for down-time and received pay increases during his time there. That being so he was entitled to the package of protections and leave rights enjoyed by employees and not by contractors.

The original decision — and its confirmation — sent a shiver through the production sector here, sparking fears that it could blunten New Zealand’s competitive edge by raising labor costs.

It is in the nature of the New Zealand film industry that crew members and workers in affiliated industries are taken on as contractors not employees. This effectively de-unionizes the industry and keeps labor costs down, which has made New Zealand an attractive location for so-called “runaway” productions.

Local guilds — in particular the New Zealand Writers Guild and the Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand (SPADA) — are standing shoulder-to-shoulder to emphasize that the case is not likely to have widespread implications.

SPADA CEO Penelope Borland stresses that the original finding of the employment court was based on the specific circumstances of the case.

“It does not make any significant change to the way contractors are engaged in the screen industry,” she said.