Hard News by Russell Brown


Hobbit Wars

It was quite a sight, last night, as what seemed like every actor in Auckland streamed into the Grey Lynn Community Centre to talk about industrial relations. I had been looking forward to hearing what was said, but the sign taped to the door reading "Performers only – NO MEDIA" indicated I wasn't welcome.

As I left, I ran into the producer John Barnett, who had also been planning to attend the meeting. I told him about the sign on the door. He was also surprised. Perhaps it had merely been a meeting notified publicly, and not a public meeting per se, but that hadn't been clear.

Half the cast of Outrageous Fortune walked up. Antonia Prebble wanted to know why John wasn't coming to the meeting, and tried to coax him to come with her. No, he explained, he couldn't. He'd be off home, he joked, to watch that fine programme Outrageous Fortune.

By the standards of the local production industry, John is relatively restrained in discussing the Australian-based Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, and its New Zealand subsidiary, Actors' Equity. Which is to say that he can do so without descending into incoherent rage.

I've yet to speak to anyone in screen production and development who doesn't regard the MEAA as toxic. Which has essentially been the case since 2005, when the MEAA moved in to New Zealand to take over New Zealand Actor's Equity, which had been languishing under the auspices of the National Distribution Union. Remarkably, one of those most opposed to the move was actors' agent the late Robert Bruce, who spent years working with Actors' Equity on improving minimum wages and conditions. He predicted "dire consequences" if the Australia union came in.

Much of the heat seems to centre around the MEAA's national director, Simon Whipp. In 2007, a film producer threatened to rip out Whipp's eyes (fittingly, it was a gangster film). I can't comment on the merits of that case – the producer's contracts don't seem to have been what he promised -- but there seems no happy way to regard the MEAA's decision to ban its members from working on a Creative Commons-based "re-mixable" film project, despite letters of support from all the principal actors.

Last year, the Screen Producers Association of Australia accused the MEAA of calling for illegal strike action. In this case, MEAA was the party accused of refusing to talk, after the SPAA withdrew from an offshore commercials agreement it had long been unhappy with. SPAA head Geoff Brown said:

The alternative - that does nothing for the wider Australian industry but works for some performers - has been to accept contracts to film the commercial in New Zealand where the performer is free to negotiate their fees outside the MEAA/SPAA Offshore Agreement …

"SPAA has enormous respect for performers and the value of their work. This decision is not about forcing the lowest price: the international market finds our Agreement confusing and inflexible in a variety of ways, including formulaic terms for buyouts/usages and numbers of edits of a commercial. This makes it much more difficult to employ actors in Australia than our competitor countries such as New Zealand, South Africa or Canada. Our producers will still be offering very good fees to actors and SPAA will be providing producers with a guide to underlying conditions.

The present unrest seems to have begun with this letter last October from the US-based Screen Actors Guild, which reiterates the SAG's Global Rule One and states that a New Zealand or Australian performer must be covered by either a SAG or an MEAA agreement to work on a New Zealand production.

The conspiracy theory, which I heard yesterday from one producer, is that the SAG is looking to protect its own members by preventing so-called "runaway productions" in Australia and New Zealand. They've succeeded in Australia, the theory goes, and now they're turning to New Zealand.

It is not, in itself, at all unreasonable for New Zealand actors to wish to negotiate a collective agreement. Yet as David Farrar notes:

The Employment Relations Act states a NZ union, must be an incorporated society under the Incorporated Societies Act 1908. The MEAA is not. Screen Hub reports:

NZ Actors’ Equity is a trade union in NZ, an affiliate member of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) under its MEAA name. It was struck off the Ministry of Economic Development’s (MED) Register of Incorporated Societies last week under its registered name of Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

So there is no legal entity to negotiate with.

It's not often I'd be inclined to take Mr Farrar's side against a union, but this is an extraordinary situation, and one which the MEAA and its local spokespeople have completely failed to address. John Barnett told me he suspected the union let its registration lapse (by failing to file reports for the last three years) to avoid having to reveal the size of its membership. But even if the registration lapsed through simple negligence, it's staggering that the union would be demanding to negotiate when it's in no legal position to do so.

There is also, I gather, a legal barrier with respect to the ability of producers to negotiate with the union on the pay and condition of contractors. Yet behind this is the Supreme Court's 2006 decision on the case of miniature model maker James Bryson, which reversed the Court of Appeal's earlier decision, and found that Bryson was in fact an employee of the Hobbit's LOTR's production company Three Foot Six, and not merely a contractor. The screen industry is full of contractors – I'm one – and there was a wide range of opinion about that case. The extent to which the Supreme Court's decision on Bryson can be applied to actors would, I'm sure, be equally hotly debated.

So let's just say this is far more complicated than Peter Jackson refusing to negotiate with a union.

Jackson, for his part, insists he is not anti-union, and has always happily worked with various guilds and unions. His cri de couer is here. IrishBill responded to that at The Standard, and the union's fact sheet is here.

In the meantime, it would seem prudent not to accept anyone's take on this dispute at face value – not least when it comes to the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett, whose names have been invoked without them having apparently said anything at all on the matter.

But there's one, fairly amazing, wrinkle to this that can't go unremarked. Actors' Equity's New Zealand contact is Frances Walsh. I presume that's the same Frances Walsh, journalist, who was the subject of a bizarre legal threat from Peter Jackson's partner, Fran Walsh, who accused her of passing herself off as the real Fran Walsh when she wrote a feature about the New Zealand screen industry under her own name, Frances Walsh. That got bitter. And it's hard not to feel that this scrap too may get worse before it gets better.

PS: I'm wary of seeming to criticise only the union here, but the Actors' Equity site recommends this article by an MEAA member as "an excellent article clarifying the facts".

Among the facts "clarified" by Stephen Colbard is this: "No claim has been made suggesting The Hobbit is non union ..."

And yet the link on the Equity site sits just above this:

Friday, 24 September 2010

The makers of feature film The Hobbit – to be shot in New Zealand next year – are refusing to engage performers on union-negotiated agreements.

I'm sorry, but WTF?

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