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Labor dispute erupts over 'The Hobbit' [updated]

September 27, 2010 |  8:16 pm

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All is not peaceful in the Shire.

Even before "The Hobbit" has begun production, a labor dispute has cast a cloud over the two-picture project, pitting producer Peter Jackson against various performer unions, including the Screen Actors Guild.

SAG has joined six other unions who represent performers in the UK, Canada and Australia, in advising their members to not work on this "non-union production."

In a jointly signed statement, the unions said producers of the film refused to negotiate a union contract for actors on the films, which are being readied to be shot in New Zealand. Warner Bros. and its New Line Cinema unit are producing the films that are co-owned with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studios are currently sorting out rights and financing issues in the hope of beginning production in the first quarter of next year so that the movies can be completed in time for a 2012 holiday release.

The boycott is being led by the International Federation of Actors on behalf of a group of actors in New Zealand seeking union contracts that would provide them with minimum wages and residual payments.

Jackson has fired back, accusing an actors group in New Zealand of making unreasonable demands that could force the production, the prequel story to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, to shut down or move to Europe, "endangering a project that hundreds of people have worked on over the last two years," he wrote in a statement. Presumably, if SAG stuck to its guns, that would prevent stars such as Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett, who played Gandalf and Galadriel, respectively, in "Lord of the Rings," from working on "The Hobbit."

"I'm not anti-union the slightest," Jackson added.

Jackson blasted an Australian union that has been seeking to negotiate on behalf of the New Zealand actors, saying it had no legal standing in his country and was seeking to gain a foothold in New Zealand's production industry.

"It feels like we have a large Aussie cousin kicking sand in our eyes," he wrote.

[Update, 8:38 p.m.: New Line, Warner Bros. and MGM issued the following joint statement on the controversy:

New Line, Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures are concerned by the recent allegations of unfair treatment of actors in New Zealand and instructions from the performers’ guilds to their membership to withhold services from the producers of “The Hobbit” in New Zealand.   We are proud to have good relations with all of those performers’ guilds and value their contribution to the motion pictures produced in their respective jurisdictions throughout the world.  But we believe that in this case the allegations are baseless and unfair to Peter Jackson and his team in Wellington who have been tireless supporters of the New Zealand motion picture community.

To classify the production as "non-union" is inaccurate.  The cast and crew are being engaged under collective bargaining agreements where applicable and we are mindful of the rights of those individuals pursuant to those agreements. And while we have previously worked with MEAA, an Australian union now seeking to represent actors in New Zealand, the fact remains that there cannot be any collective bargaining with MEAA on this New Zealand production, for to do so would expose the production to liability and sanctions under New Zealand law.  This legal prohibition has been explained to MEAA. We are disappointed that MEAA has nonetheless continued to pursue this course of action.

Motion picture production requires the certainty that a production can reasonably proceed without disruption and it is our general policy to avoid filming in locations where there is potential for work force uncertainty or other forms of instability.  As such, we are exploring all alternative options in order to protect our business interests.]

-- Richard Verrier

Photo: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) guides Frodo (Elijah Wood) through the caverns of Middle-earth in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." Credit: Pierre Vinet / New Line Cinema.

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