‘The Hobbit law’ - there and back again

The make-up of a working group tasked with coming up with an alternative to the controversial “Hobbit law” has been revealed. Shane Cowlishaw explores whether the screen industry and unions will be able to come up with something that keeps everyone happy, including Sir Peter Jackson.

It was a battle that pitted two New Zealand icons against each other.

Actress Robyn Malcolm, best known for playing feisty West Auckland mother Cheryl West on Outrageous Fortune, and director Sir Peter Jackson, largely credited with kickstarting the country’s booming film and tourism industries after The Lord of the Rings.

Back in 2010 this wasn’t a fantasy, however, but an industrial relations dispute.

The ‘Hobbit law’ — officially called the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill — was passed in late 2010 following a huge uproar regarding the right of actors to bargain collectively.

Led by NZ Equity, the New Zealand Actor’s Union, and figurehead Malcolm, the side campaigned fiercely for a better deal for those on individual contracts during the filming of The Hobbit.

It was strongly opposed by film studio Warner Bros and Jackson who argued that the unrest could lead to the film moving offshore.

Sir Peter, a media recluse, even made a rare television appearance to explain his point of view.

The end result, following visits from top Warner Bros executives, was an increased tax write-off for the studio and a law passed under urgency that barred film workers from collective bargaining.

Soon after taking power last year the new Government announced it would not repeal the legislation but would make changes.

“The real risk is you end up not having much of an industry if you put that too far.”

The right to engage in collective negotiations would be restored and a working group would be formed to recommend changes that would allow workers to stay on individual contracts if they wished while providing certainty to the industry.

Just who is on that working group was announced on Monday, with representatives from 13 organisations including Weta Digital, Equity New Zealand, BusinessNZ and the Council of Trade Unions.

Lawyer Linda Clark, a former political journalist, will facilitate the working group, which will report back by mid-2018.

What’s at stake?

The screen industry in New Zealand brought in $3.3 billion in revenue in 2016, a rise of three percent on the previous year and a jump from several years of sitting stable at $3b.

That was largely due to a 15 percent jump in production and post-production, Stats NZ reported, with Wellington leading the way after doubling its revenue from 2015.

Government funding was also pumped up by 15 percent to $190 million, while revenue from overseas sources shot up 32 percent to $678m.

What this all tells us is that the industry employs a lot of people and has grown robustly since The Lord of the Rings was filmed here.

Filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson lobbied the then-Government hard to remove the ability of contract workers to enter collective bargaining. Photo: Getty

The question is, will a reversal of the Hobbit Law impact that?

One unknown is how the international film industry would respond to any employment law changes.

Several big films are currently being filmed here, including James Cameron’s Avatar sequels, while Sir Peter’s own project Mortal Engines has wrapped but could result in several sequels.

The working group Cabinet paper warns about the uncertainty that could be created while changes are being finalised.

“International film productions considering investing in New Zealand may raise concerns about the uncertain nature of future employment law in New Zealand.

“In particular, there may be concerns about employment law changing after the production of a film has already commenced, leading to possible disruptions. The scale of this risk is unclear at this stage.”

But that same paper also points out that a recent draft NZIER report showed screen sector workers’ median salaries had grown, particularly for lower-income workers, but remained below the average.

Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said employment guidelines in the screen industry were unenforceable and this left people open to exploitation.

Improving the law would lead to better conditions for screen industry workers, but the findings of the working group could also influence the Government’s wider body of work around industry minimum standards and collective bargaining for contractors, he said.

“I trust that everybody coming into this conversation sees it for the good opportunity that it is and I think everyone is committed to finding a solution together.”

When asked about the risk that film studios could take their work elsewhere, Lees-Galloway said he had not spoken to Jackson about the issue but was confident that any move would, in fact, enhance the sector’s economic contribution.

“Interestingly, whenever we’ve talked about what makes New Zealand competitive with other potential locations for films wage rates and costs almost never come up, people talk more about the skill level of the people who are available in New Zealand, the flexibility, the quality of locations, the investment that’s gone into technology and research in New Zealand, those are the things that we are competing on.”

National’s Arts spokesperson Paul Goldsmith disputes this and said the Government could severely damage a prosperous industry if it didn’t tread carefully.

“The industry’s not broken, it’s going very well, it’s a very successful export industry for New Zealand by some measures generating 25,000 jobs so we’re not in favour in doing this at all and it seems to me the Government has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to international competitiveness.”

He defended the decision to change the law in 2010 and said it had worked well for New Zealand, regardless of whether the industry’s median salary was below average.

“I think most people are keen to have the opportunity to be involved in this industry and get some work done, I don’t want to get into an argument about what people should be getting paid for specific roles.

“The real risk is you end up not having much of an industry if you put that too far.”

After leading an often-bloody industrial relations battle that it eventually lost, the union representing New Zealand’s actors is positive with developments.

Melissa Ansell-Bridges, Equity New Zealand’s industrial organiser who will be on the working group, said such a gathering of industry voices was a long time coming.

“I think that this is the type of conversation that should have happened [in 2010], it’s long overdue in the industry.”

It was a complicated area of law and Ansell-Bridges was happy with the wide-representation from within the industry, whose expertise and input would all be needed.

The bad blood from 2010 had hopefully faded enough that everyone could participate in good faith, she said.

“I trust that everybody coming into this conversation sees it for the good opportunity that it is and I think everyone is committed to finding a solution together.”

A representative for Weta did not respond to a request for comment.

The Film Industry Working Group

Facilitator - Linda Clark

Melissa Ansell-Bridges, Equity New Zealand

Michael Brook, Regional Film Offices New Zealand

Craig Dunn, Stunt Guild

Richard Fletcher, Screen Production and Development Association

Brendan Keys, Weta Digital

Alex Lee, Film Auckland

Sioux Macdonald, Screen Industry Guild

Paul Mackay, BusinessNZ

Barrie Osborne, Producer

Tui Ruwhiu, Directors and Editors Guild

Alice Shearman, New Zealand Writers Guild

Erina Tamepo, Ngā Aho Whakaari

Richard Wagstaff, New Zealand Council of Trade Unions

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