The hubbub surrounding actor unions and Warner Brothers concerning the hiring of union workers in New Zealand is likely to be resolved with The Hobbit remaining in New Zealand. This only comes after everyone involved in the production were needlessly given a heart attack because of some foolish posturing by said actor unions — the collective heart attack resulting from a possible shift of production to Europe.
You can’t always be certain of what the truth is with these matters, but I’m one to believe director Peter Jackson:
Jackson said he was “incredibly angry” at the NZ Equity actors’ union for launching industrial action which threatened his 500 million US dollar project without properly consulting its members.
The Oscar-winning director also disputed NZ Equity’s assertion that it called for an international boycott of “The Hobbit” last month after he refused to negotiate with it on minimum conditions for actors on the set.
Jackson said the union called the ban, which has since been lifted, before contacting him about its concerns.
“They are attempting to characterise their actions as an innocent request for a meeting, but the truth is they kept a loaded gun to our heads the entire time,” he said in a statement.
In short, the unions insisted that Warners sign a collective bargaining agreement and hire union actors for the film, in an attempt to expand its membership. If the studio refused, which it did, the actors called for a boycott of the film. The studio and Jackson claimed that any non-union actors being hired would still be able to pull from a pool of residuals, just as union actors would. One could argue whether non-union actor deals really are as good as their union brethren, but that’s not really the crux of the issue.
Unions should be welcome by believers in the free market. History has shown workers get abused and taken advantage of without them. Unions create a deterrent, and force employers to come to the bargaining table to find what should be a happy medium.
We all know that unions have since over-reached in non-entertainment industries. The crushing weight of pensions are bankrupting the states. Outrageous UAW contracts helped paralyze domestic auto companies. The pendulum shifts the other way in entertainment – the studios have enormous power , although the unions have made important and reasonable gains over the years. The studios, however, ultimately have the leverage.
The actor unions tried to overreach in the case of The Hobbit. By threatening to boycott, they took the risk that Peter Jackson and Warners could not walk away from Jackson’s existing New Zealand filmmaking infrastructure.
Bad move. Warners has the money to move the production. It might cost them, but everyone knows The Hobbit films are going to do blockbuster business. It’s not make-or-break for the studio. Now, of course, the unions are backtracking and probably panicking because Warners is still threatening to move the production.
It won’t happen. Warners now must send a signal to the actor unions that they will not be pushed around. If anything, the unions may have just screwed themselves on whatever deal they had.
There is a wider issue that should be noted. Studios and talent unions are not working in a holistic manner that would benefit both sides. A better approach would be for the studios to regard talent unions not as antagonists, but as partners. Some creative deal structuring would vastly improve relations. It wouldn’t cost the studios much and it would probably remove the threat of any further labor action.
That, however, is fantasy – just like The Hobbit.