Friday 1 October 2010

Concerning Hobbits

There is an almost finished post sitting in my drafts folder about my general post Toi adventure outlook.  I wrote about a couple of auditions that came up and my general excitement for what other surprises the next year will have in store for me as an actress.  My outlook for the coming months and years is - maybe surprisingly so - very positive. Well, actually, scratch that. My outlook for the future WAS very positive. I was riding on post-audition highs, marvelling in how everything was pointing to things being the way they were supposed to be and at how I can trust the universe to put me on the right path. 

Then the following happened. Most of you are probably aware of the MEAA/Actors’ Equity controversy in New Zealand at the moment and the petition that was started yesterday. For those of you who are not, here's what happened.

In 2006 the Actors’ Equity (AE), an organisation without union status representing a small number of actors in New Zealand decided to join forces with the Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) to counteract dwindling membership numbers, give it the guaranteed support of a union and extend its reach across the Tasman and via MEAA perhaps even further. With an alleged membership number of 598 at present Actors’ Equity represents at the most about one quarter of New Zealand Actors. If taking into account so-called second rung performers, those actors who are not agency represented, of which there are about 17,000 the share of Equity represented actors is more like somewhere under 5%. 

A few days ago MEAA/AE went public with the complaint that they have been seeking a meeting with the producers of The Hobbit films, to discuss union-standard contracts for the films' actors but had not heard back from the production. This prompted MEAA/AE to call all actors in NZ to boycott work on the films until such a meeting has taken place and an agreement to guarantee actors union-contracts has been achieved. The International Federation of Actors, which represents the world's seven major actors unions (including SAG) and actors in 100 countries, then told its members not to act in The Hobbit until they get a union contract.

Peter Jackson subsequently issued a statement in response saying among other things that this whole shebang could cost New Zealand The Hobbit films, that they might be moved overseas, a prospect that might well be devastating to the local film industry now and for the future. Two days later, the studios behind the Hobbit films, New Line, Warner Bros and MGM, said they avoided locations with the potential for workforce uncertainty or other forms of instability and were looking at all their options, including moving the production overseas. If you think it is premature or panicky to think that a boycott of this sort will really impact on The Hobbit and New Zealand film hear this; Within a couple of days The Hobbit pre-production activity has come to a screeching halt. Don't kid yourself into a false sense of security.

In the last two days there have been two meetings in Auckland and Wellington where MEAA/AE passed resolutions to basically stick to their demands and their call for a boycott.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for actors banding together, getting organised and achieving minimum standard conditions that are guaranteed to them no matter which production they work for. I believe in the power and possibilities that unions offer and I am aware of how important it is to have a single voice that can represent our collective interests. I am, although eligible, not a member of AE and have been considering joining for a while now. I don't think I will. This whole thing is just wrong on so many levels that I don't know even where to begin. 

How about this? The production of The Hobbit has been going on for more than two years. To my information, one month ago was the first time that MEAA/AE has approached the producers of The Hobbit films. However, in a statement issued on Thursday night Peter Jackson argued that the producers' association (SPADA) had attempted to discuss actors' terms and conditions with the union for much longer than that - for the past 18 months in fact. Moreover, Peter Jackson's offer to attend and speak at the Equity meeting in Wellington after repeated and unanswered attempts throughout the day was denied shortly before the meeting started. What is this? Talk to us but only when we tell you to?

Or how about this? New Zealand Actors’ Equity as stated above represents a far smaller portion of working actors than many other actors union, a laughably small portion at that but purport to speak for all of us. In the national and international media all NZ actors are misrepresented as wanting to boycott The Hobbit films. However, only about a quarter of working actors are represented by AE, so only a quarter of NZ actors have actually been officially asked to give their opinion on the matter – in the days AFTER the call for a boycott was made public. At the meetings in Auckland and Wellington about several hundred performers voted on the issue. (The participation numbers are unclear to me. I have heard about 200 from one source, 390 from another for Auckland and 40 for Wellington.) Not all of them were AE members. The voting numbers are being held back by Actors’ Equity but reliable sources tell me that the overwhelming majority of the participants in Auckland were AE members and all but one participant voted in favour of the resolutions mentioned earlier. Of course they did, The Hobbit is a Wellington production. In Wellington - also with official numbers held back - just under a quarter of actors voted against the resolutions. But again most of the participants were AE members. Even if every single AE member voted in favour of a boycott, there are still are 1500 actors and 17,000 second rung performers who have not voted and a lot of us do NOT support the idea of a boycott. 

Moreover, labeling The Hobbit production and actors' contracts as 'non-union' and inferior is both farcical and a misrepresentation of reality for a number of reasons. 

A) Actors’ Equity is not a registered union. It is of this month not even a registered Incorporated Society any more. While Equity's lawyer told the crowd last night that this is due to an 'administrative error', I don't think that failing to file annual reports two years running can really be called that. 

B) While MEAA is a trade-union under Australian law, they have absolutely no legal standing here in New Zealand. 

C) Under New Zealand law actors are NOT employees, they are contractors. This means that there can be no UNION representation and negotiation on our behalf in the first place because this would be price fixing, which is, you guessed it, illegal. While Equity's lawyer, correctly pointed out that there was no law to deter an organisation representing actors to pursue negotiations with production companies to reach agreement on standard terms and conditions for performers' contracts, these contracts if used would still be 'NON-UNION'. In fact, any film and/or production in New Zealand can only be 'non-union' as far as actors are concerned because that's the current law. So, while labeling the Hobbit or any other production for that matter as 'non-union' while in actual terms correct, is also a misrepresentation of the legal situation in New Zealand. And it is a farce intended to get the support of overseas actors unions who would be shocked and appalled by the non-union status of productions here and of course guarantee their support for any action suggested by MEAA/AE without knowing THAT IT CANNOT BE ANY THING ELSE BUT NON-UNION! In this whole scenario no one has explained how under the very specific circumstances the NZ film industry operates in it is supposed to be possible to actually employ all actors on all productions instead of bringing us on as independent contractors. Please enlighten me how you propose to do this - practically, legally, financially and with a look to NZ's competitive edge in international film. Speaking of our competitive edge, I am aware there is more to this than just our actors being contractors and production companies not having to deal with unions but it is very much a part of our appeal to international film makers. And lets not kid ourselves. Every film industry outside of L.A. County needs a competitive edge.

D) While there has been controversy in the past, particularly about residuals from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which film industry whether dealing with unions or not is free of controversy over pay for their workers? Moreover, from what I can gather from the information made available to me since the Rings controversy there have been many improvements in the terms and conditions for actors used by Three Foot Seven Productions, who produce The Hobbit films. The production company and the studios involved in this project are aligned with overseas unions such as SAG, so that many international actors working on these films will participate in residuals. Non-SAG members are not legally entitled to be paid residuals, however Warner Brothers have agreed to create a separate pot of money to be divided up under a 'participation rider' amongst all New Zealand and Australian(!) actors cast in the films.  That is something non-existent in New Zealand for a long time AND MEAA/AE are aware of it! Furthermore, Peter Jackson has suggested, that a New Zealand actor in a small supporting role could expect to earn about $NZ5000 a week. This is $NZ1200 higher than SAG's published rates of $NZ3800 per week. While these are just examples, they and the willingness of the producers' association to talk to Actors’ Equity about standard terms and conditions show, that we are already moving in the right direction. Lastly on this point, another way of misrepresenting facts is MEAA/AE claim that The Hobbit contracts because they are 'non-union' will be inferior to union contracts because The Hobbit contracts have not even been written yet. MEAA/AE have no idea what the proposal for actor remuneration on this project will be. Maybe they should have put more effort into talking to the producers' association in the first place...

Why is MEAA/AE so concerned for actors' rights within this particular production and not the many others currently going on in the country? These are productions for which the terms of performers' contracts are already publicly known. They are (naturally under New Zealand circumstances) 'non-union'. Spartacus for example, which has been shooting in Auckland all through this year and last can for example fire actors without warning, offers no additional compensation and no residuals, and have the right to dub an actors performance without actor consultation. No one has said anything about these contract, including MEAA/AE. The Hobbit producers have stated that their 'cast contracts do not reflect any of these conditions'. However, MEAA/AE has not even made the slightest attempt to collectively bargain better contracts for Spartacus and similar current productions.

I fully understand the desire to make a stand for standard performers contracts with guaranteed minimum conditions and I support the idea of such contracts. However, MEAA/AE's actions have absolutely nothing to do with the supposed inferiority of The Hobbit's 'non-union' cast contract. It has everything to do with the scale of the project and the enormous world-wide anticipation it has created. And MEAA/AE's timing could not have been worse.

What should have been a brilliant move by MEAA/AE - huge project, huge publicity - from the outset was doomed to fail and create nothing but problems for the NZ film industry as a whole.

This production has been hampered with costly delays for months and months now. It has been hampered by the financial woes and impending sale of MGM. It has been hampered by the studios involved failing again and again to give the production the green light. The delays have cost this production its original director and the current one is tied up with other so many other projects that any further delays jeopardise his involvement as a director as well. And then what?

Whether or not you agree with allegations that MEAA's actions are nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt at taking control of the New Zealand film industry to better advance their interests, this much is clear; If there was ever a time to use The Hobbit to make a stand for actors' rights, it has so long since passed that MEAA/AE's current actions are quite frankly incredibly stupid and short-sighted, and as was blatantly obvious right off the bat a very real danger to the whole of NZ's film industry.

It sickens me to know that the whole world believes that all or even a majority of New Zealand actors stand firmly behind this bullshit. There, I said it. Bullshit. It sickens me to know that we are believed to be greedy, and inconsiderate towards the thousands of other people working in the industry.
After stating at the Wellington Equity meeting that they would stay out of the press, two Equity representatives went on current affairs show Campbell Live last night. Despite the requests of at least two non-equity performers to be heard on the show as well, again the voice of those disagreeing with MEAA/AE’s actions remained unheard. The Equity reps on last night’s show stated that their stand was not about money. However, while MEAA/AE backtracked on their call to boycott over the past couple of days, they still recommend that NZ actors ‘wait before accepting any engagement on the production of The Hobbit until the production has advised whether it will enter into good faith negotiations with NZ Actors’ Equity with respect to the minimum conditions of engagement… including minimum fees, conditions of engagement, professional protections and residuals.’ Moreover, the international call for boycott remains in place with big-name Hollywood stars like Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen and others intimately tied to the production firmly behind it. There also remains the possibility of a new call for boycott in NZ should there be no negotiations with Three Foot Seven or should such negotiations fail.
Do we, New Zealand actors, deserve to be treated fairly? Do we deserve minimum guarantees that give us a little bit of stability in a very unstable line of work? Of course we do! But this was not the way to do it and will surely not be the way to achieve it. What I find most exasperating is that despite the producers’ association's repeated attempts over the past years to enter into negotiation with Equity, despite its non-union status – Equity is making it all about The Hobbit now. They are attempting to force the production into setting a precedent for minimum standards that all future productions would have to adhere to without having a say or face boycott as a consequence. They are putting Three Foot Seven in an impossible situation, deny Peter Jackson access to their meeting, therefore turning down an the opportunity they publicly stated they were waiting for. They make no attempts to talk to SPADA. And then they go on TV and say that they would LOVE to talk to SPADA and all they want is to talk to Three Foot Seven. Contradictory much? Last night’s interview ended with John Campbell presenting an email the show had received from SPADA stating that they are happy to meet with Equity. Lets hope Equity takes them up on the offer and they come to an agreement and soon!

Lets also hope and pray to the universe, or god or whatever other higher power you can think of that MEAA/AE's actions will not come back to bite us is our collective arses and that in the years to come we will still have a functioning and thriving film industry.

For those of you performers who share my sentiments on this issue I urge you to take action! Let the world know that MEAA/EA does not speak for us! At the very least, please sign the petition against any boycott here.

Please add your thoughts!


Here are some recent articles published in various papers and collectively available on Stuff.

Also have a look at New Zealand Actors’ Equity's homepage here and a 'pro-union' article here. Comparing the two makes for an interesting if slightly contradictory read... Similarly the Equity reps at last nights TV3 show contradicted themselves on several occasions. Watch it here.

Read Wellington writer/director/blogger and petition initiator Chaz Harris' blog on The Hobbit controversy here.

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