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The Govt-Hollywood battle to keep The Hobbit in NZ

Wednesday 28 Nov 2012 5:51 p.m.

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By Political Editor Patrick Gower

There was a sub-plot to today’s premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – a battle over whether the movie would actually be made in New Zealand.

There were threats of a union boycott and a stand-off with Warner Bros before the the Government stepped in and did a deal.

And this is how the deal went down: A convoy of Crown limousines carted the bosses of Warner Bros up to the Prime Minister's residence. It was all about whether The Hobbit would stay or go.

So John Key did what he does best – a deal. It stayed and today he says, we won.

“Absolutely it was worth it,” says Mr Key. “If we hadn't taken the actions we took, then this would be the worldwide premiere being filmed in London. Three-thousand-odd people wouldn't have had some role, some job, and New Zealand wouldn't be being promoted on the world stage.”

It all started with a threatened boycott by actors on The Hobbit, until they got a unionised collective agreement. It was led by Simon Whipp, national director of the Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, with backing from New Zealand's Council of Trade Unions (CTU).

That union threat was quickly countered by another threat – that Warner Bros would take the $670 million trilogy offshore.

That caused a backlash against the unions and a march on Parliament by Hobbit workers, so by the time Warner Bros arrived at Mr Key's place, they wanted more than a free ride. They wanted more taxpayer cash in subsidies, and they got it – $20 million of new grants and $13.4 million for marketing, all on top of the $60 million they already had locked in: a $93.4 million payday.

“We wouldn't have paid away all the subsidies, but we wouldn't have got all the revenue we earned on the other side,” says Mr Key. “To me [it was] absolutely worth it.”

But what Warner Bros really wanted was a change to New Zealand's labour laws. They'd been spooked by a Lord of the Rings contractor taking them to court, arguing he was an employee.

So the Government gave them that too – a law change meaning movie workers are contractors only.

“The people that clarified the law wanted us to do that so they could keep their job and get other work,” says Mr Key.

So Mr Key rolled out the red carpet for Warner Bros to keep The Hobbit here, and this is the proof. Today it is on Courtenay Pl, but the debate still rages on. Was it about saving the movie as Mr Key says, or was it about selling the law to Hollywood? 

“The law change that the Government passed at the ask of an international company removed all of the employment rights of any worker in the film industry – those of the minimum wage, the Holidays Act, the employer levies to ACC,” says Helen Kelly of the CTU. “The right to security against unfair dismissal was completely stripped away for no reason at all.”

Actors and workers don't have the same rights as their overseas colleagues, like The Hobbit stars. But Weta Workshop boss Richard Taylor was straight up, saying Mr Key did what needed to be done.

“[It was] critical, as you saw with the march on Parliament with our desperate need to keep it here,” says Mr Taylor. “This is a New Zealand project and it deserves to be made by New Zealanders. I was very pleased that we managed to keep it here.”

“I guess this country is starting to see the power of Hollywood in this country,” says Ms Kelly. “We've got a Prime Minister who has got a taste for celebrity, and he seems willing to do anything to please those masters.”

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