Will Peter Jackson get labeled a union buster on 'The Hobbit'?
I guess it tells us everything we need to know about the volatile state of labor relations in the entertainment business that long before "The Hobbit" has gone into production, or even received a greenlight, the much-heralded two-picture project has become the focus of a bitter dispute between the film's producer and expected director Peter Jackson and a host of actors guilds and international unions. They've thrown down the gauntlet, so to speak, stating that their members are "advised not to accept work on this non-union production."
In addition to inspiring reporters everywhere to begin their stories with phrases such as "All is not peaceful in the Shire," the unions' heaving of the gauntlet prompted an emotional response from Jackson, who blasted away in a statement at his tormentors, saying "I feel growing anger at the way this tiny minority is endangering a project that thousands of people have worked on over the past two years, and the thousands about to [be] employed over the next four years, [and] the hundreds of millions of dollars that is about to be spent in our economy." Jackson made it clear that if the unions don't back off, the big budget prequel to the "Lord of the Rings" saga will be moving to a region that is popular with Hollywood productions looking for a way to save lots of money. As Jackson put it: "There is a twisted logic to seeing NZ [New Zealand] humiliated on the world stage, by losing 'The Hobbit' to Eastern Europe."
I confess that, for once, I'm not sure who to side with in this dispute. Jackson has done more to raise the profile of New Zealand, and its filmmaking community, than anyone in recent history. He probably figures that he is being used as a whipping boy by the guilds, especially Australia's Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance union, which according to a very smart piece by Jonathan Handel, has not managed to unionize any productions in New Zealand, making that country, as Handel describes it, "a sore spot for actors unions across the English-speaking world. The unions allege that productions relocate to New Zealand specifically to avoid union terms."
Of course, Jackson is a native, so he has a different perspective. But at a time when showbiz conglomerates have been doing virtually everything in their power to marginalize unions all around the globe, it would be naive for Jackson to expect that a mammoth production such as "The Hobbit" wouldn't become a leverage point for union activists, especially when it comes to trying to establish better terms for actors and crewmembers. It certainly gives the "Hobbit" a black eye to learn, via the International Federation of Actors, that the nonunion contracts being offered to extras "provide no minimum guarantees of wages or working conditions, no payments for future broadcasts of the film and no cancellation payments."
And when it comes to looking like bully boys, no one can top New Line, Warner Bros. and MGM, the trio of studios involved with "The Hobbit," who have now released a statement that basically tells Australia's MEAA union to butt out of its business. The studios also raised the threat (whenever you read the phrase "we are exploring all alternative options in order to protect our business interests," you know it's a threat) of moving the movies to a country with a more docile labor environment.
Will cooler heads prevail? I'd like to think so. But I wouldn't be surprised, with studios showing less patience than ever with union demands and unions eager to pick a fight they might win, at least from a PR perspective, that "The Hobbit's" labor dispute is going to be a real humdinger. Jackson has every right to feel as if "we're being attacked simply because we are a big fat juicy target." But he shouldn't be surprised. His film is a target because showbiz unions have been getting their clocks cleaned by giant media companies in nearly every recent labor dispute. You might say, to use a phrase that's come back into the popular lexicon this year, the unions are mad and they aren't going to take it anymore.
Photo: Peter Jackson posing with the Oscar for best director at the 2004 Academy Awards. Credit: Jeff Haynes / AFP/Getty Images