×

‘Hobbit’ settles in New Zealand

Equity union vows no industrial action during local production

With production due to start in three months, “The Hobbit” is finally home in New Zealand — following a vitriolic dispute underlining the high stakes of mega-budget tentpoles.

Wednesday’s settlement came at the end of a bitter one-month firefight with actors unions over a boycott that provoked Warner Bros. and director Peter Jackson to threaten to move “The Hobbit” to Europe or Australia. Making the deal required the intervention of New Zealand prime minister John Key, who announced at a press conference that he’d sweetened the terms enough for Warner Bros. to stay. Among other concessions, the studio was given a larger production subsidy.

“Making the two Hobbit movies here will not only safeguard work for thousands of New Zealanders, but it will also follow the success of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy in once again promoting NZ on the world stage,” he said at a news conference Wednesday night.

Key said his government plans to introduce legislation aimed at clarifying a key issue involving the use of independent contractors and employees in the film industry — even though the actors had called off the boycott a week ago and pledged that they wouldn’t disrupt “The Hobbit.” The NZ Actors Equity reiterated that pledge Wednesday.

“NZ Actors Equity stands by its unequivocal assurances to Warner Brothers and ‘The Hobbit’s’ producers there will be no industrial action while the film is produced in New Zealand,” the union said in a statement attributed to Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance executive Simon Whipp.

The New Zealand union operates as part of Australia-based MEAA, which organized the boycott. Jackson — revered in his Kiwi homeland for elevating New Zealand’s status as a production location for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — took particular umbrage that an Australian union was involved, saying last month that the boycott represented a plot by the Aussies to gain control of the Kiwi film industry.

“There is a twisted logic to seeing NZ humiliated on the world stage, by losing ‘The Hobbit’ to Eastern Europe,” Jackson said at the time.

Warners, New Line and MGM announced they were greenlighting the project on Oct. 15 but didn’t give a location. The unions called off the boycott five days later. Thousands of New Zealanders took to the streets in half a dozen rallies this week to urge the government to keep “The Hobbit.”

Facing twin body blows to its film and tourism industries, Key agreed to provide additional tax rebates for Warner Bros. and work with the studio on a strategic partnership to promote New Zealand as a film production and tourism destination.

The prime minister said New Zealand is expanding its 15% subsidy program for large-budget films, resulting in an $7.5 million tax rebate for each of “The Hobbit” pics. The government will also offset $10 million of the costs in the joint marketing alliance with Warner Bros.

Details of the legislation clarifying the employer vs. contractor issue were not immediately available but Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly blasted the deal in an interview with a local TV station for its costs and the potential limits on workers’ rights.

It’s expected that the bill will sort out the ramifications from a 2005 court case in which a former modelmaker at Jackson’s Weta Workshop won the right to be considered an employee rather than a contractor.

Employers prefer contractors because they are cheaper and more easily dismissed than employees.

NZ Actors Equity president Jennifer Ward-Lealand said Wednesday she was grateful for the government’s new agreement with Warners.

“We are pleased the government was able to resolve the economic concerns of Warner Bros. and New Line,” she said in a statement. “The film business is an internationally competitive one and it’s important New Zealand offers incentives that allow us to continue to build our world-renowned film industry.”

Warner subsidiary New Line and MGM — which are co-financing the films — had no comment Wednesday in the wake of Key’s announcement.

“These are films that should be made in New Zealand. We have the cast, we have the crew, we have the locations,” Ward-Lealand said. “I think in many ways, the issue has helped build public awareness of the importance of the film industry to New Zealand, and the industry will be stronger as a result.”

One observer said New Zealand’s victory in keeping “The Hobbit” shoot — and the possible changes in labor law — won’t impact other film productions significantly as most shoots are not big enough to be affected by the contractor/employee issue.

“Most NZ films are six-eight week shoots so the issues don’t arise in the way that they do on a ‘Hobbit,’ which will film here for two years, or the other big-budget films,” said vet producer John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures.

While tying the $10 million sweetener to inserting New Zealand into “The Hobbit” marketing campaign will continue to boost tourism, it will do little to attract other big-budget productions faced with New Zealand’s relatively non-competitive 15% incentive program.

Australia’s government will announce the findings of its year-long review into film subsidies in the next couple of months and it’s anticipated it will boost its 15% Location Offset. That will bring renewed pressure on New Zealand to do likewise.

Decision to greenlight the films came nearly three years after New Line, MGM and Warner Bros. (parent of New Line) agreed to join up on a bigscreen version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, who obtains the ring that was the centerpiece of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy of books and films. The three films earned $3 billion worldwide. Martin Freeman has been cast as Bilbo.

Jackson will direct both segments in addition to writing and exec producing. Pre-production on the films has been under way for many months in New Zealand. Guillermo del Toro had committed to direct “The Hobbit” pics in 2008 but became frustrated by the length of time that passed before shooting started and departed last May.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content