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Kiwis in pro-‘Hobbit’ protest

Warners exex to meet NZ prime minister

The normally dry business of union politics turned to spectacle in New Zealand on Monday as Warner Bros. execs flew to Wellington under the threat of a canceled “Hobbit” production in hopes of gaining concessions from the industry and the Kiwi government.

A decision could come as soon as today on whether to keep production of two-picture “The Hobbit” from being moved to nearby Australia, the United Kingdom or Eastern Europe.

Sources close to “Hobbit” producer/helmer Peter Jackson said Monday that finding a solution was still no better than a 50-50 proposition. Reps for Warner Bros. said they would have no comment until a decision is made.

The events represented an unexpected and unfavorable turn of events for the local actors union, which had hoped to negotiate more favorable terms with Jackson by instigating a boycott of the production. Instead, the boycott drew angry reactions from Jackson and the studio, saying they would move production out of New Zealand.

The union called off its boycott last Wednesday.

As the Warner reps flew into the country, they were greeted by thousands of protesters, who demanded that something be done to keep the production at home.

Six rallies across the country drew placard-waving fans, industry workers and even some actors in an effort to show Warner Bros. that its investment was safe.

Jackson did not attend the rally, but Weta topper Richard Taylor read a statement from him at the Wellington gathering. The helmer used the opportunity to again take a swipe at the Oz union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, that organized the boycott.

“Turning us into another state of Australia under the sway of a destructive organization carries the very real risk of destroying the great big heart that beats inside our films,” Jackson wrote.

Warner Bros. and New Zealand have a lot at stake in the outcome of the confrontation.

New Zealand has a small, developing film industry that was buoyed by the production of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Without the latest production, the fledgling industry could contract just as it has begun building its infrastructure.

For Warners, the $500 million production is a likely money-maker. Keeping it in New Zealand would give the studio the advantage of using sets that have been partially built in the pre-production process. There would also be the advantage of having Jackson’s Weta post-production operation nearby. By remaining in New Zealand, Warners also would be eligible for a 15% production subsidy.

Council of Trade Unions prexy Helen Kelly has charged that Warner’s real agenda in threatening to move the production is to take advantage of more lucrative incentives offered by other nations.

Sunday was a public holiday in the would-be Middle-earth, but Prime Minister John Key said he is meeting with Warners execs through today.

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