The Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act, known colloquially as ‘The Hobbit Law’, was passed in 2010 following a dispute between the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Warner Brothers over actors’ pay. At the time, Peter Jackson had just signed on to direct The Hobbit following the international success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and New Zealand actors were becoming increasingly frustrated with their poor pay and employment conditions which seemed to be worsening despite the growth of our film sector.
In response to mounting discontent, Equity New Zealand, together with the Australian union Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), demanded that New Zealand actors be allowed to engage in collective bargaining like their counterparts in America and Britain. This demand was supported by the International Federation of Actors, who decided to boycott The Hobbit in solidarity.
The boycott was not well received by Warner Brothers, however, and threats to film The Hobbit in an alternative country soon followed. Fearing the loss of business and impact this would have on our relationship with Hollywood, New Zealanders turned on the actor’s union. Helen Kelly, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), was tasked with dealing with the fall out, and CTU reached an agreement with Warner Bros that Equity and the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) could negotiate a collective agreement.
However, while both sides of the dispute were satisfied and the boycott called off, this decision was not made public. As a result, hysteria over potential job losses caused by the boycott (that was no longer happening) continued to rise, inciting an anti-union march and Peter Jackson to put out a statement that Warner Brothers was making arrangements to pull production of The Hobbit.
In a move to undermine the New Zealand union movement, Warner Brothers lobbyists and executives met with Prime Minister at the time, John Key and The Hobbit Law was passed overnight.
It later came to light that while the public did not know an agreement had been reached between CTU and Warners prior and the boycotts called off, the National Government was aware of this information and chose to withhold it in order to pass the law. In other words, New Zealanders’ misunderstanding of the situation was exploited to lessen resistance to legislation that catastrophically weakened screen industry workers’ rights.