[Tik Tok by Kesha plays] “The producers of The Hobbit are looking at shifting the film outside of New Zealand.” “New Zealand’s latest Hobbit movie is being threatened by an Australian union fight.” “Members of Actors Equity meet and agree not to accept work on The Hobbit.” “All we are asking is for fair and equitable terms and conditions, minimum terms and conditions, that our colleagues overseas enjoy.” “Why do most of us live hand-to-mouth and have to work in other jobs to make ends meet?” “It’s not like that in other countries.” “Are you anti-union?”
“Absolutely not.” “Do you hate actors?”
“Absolutely not.” “Meanwhile, everyone goes apeshit.” “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” “Whipp go home! Whipp go home!” “The dispute has forced U.S. film giant Warner Brothers to look at moving the production away from New Zealand.” “And if the boycott goes nuclear, production of the Hobbit will move to Eastern Europe.” “Warner Brothers’s key concern was the industrial risk.” “And no one had even thought in a million years that this movie was going to leave the country.” “It is your moment to let your voice be heard, and I know your message to the studio will not go unnoticed.” “To you, Warner Brothers, you are going to make a fortune on this film, if you film it in New Zealand!” “So what we’ve got, is the Act is now in full retreat.” “New Zealand’s Prime Minister has held a crisis meeting with Warner Brothers studio executives.” “Executives from Warners fly in to nut out a deal with the government.” “So it now seems increasingly likely that the government will actually change labor laws.” “An agreement has been reached, “between New Zealand, the New Zealand government and Warner Brothers,” “New Zealand has saved its hobbits.” “to give film producers like Warner Brothers the confidence they need to produce their movies in New Zealand.” [Lindsay Ellis] What happened in 2010, to your memory? How was this framed to you? [Jonathan King] You know, the Hobbit kind of, in some ways, finished telling a story, it finished telling the narrative story, but it sort of finished telling the business story in a way. All right, this is, uh… There’s a very political process. [Tom Augustine] A law was passed essentially to help the type of studios over and bring them here that, in effect… lessened the rights of performers. It was a law which controlled union activity. It has essentially allowed people who want to exploit others to go ahead and exploit them. For actors especially, but also for crew. That began to take place pretty much after the Hobbit Law happened. I saw the Employment Contracts Act as being one that favored employers to the point where employees were having fewer and fewer rights. [Ellis] Okay, so the more I learned about this whole Hobbit thing the more complicated I realized it was, so we’ve got a visual aid to help us understand what actually happened in 2010 and onwards. And yeah, so this is basically the story of how an American Fortune 500 company swooped in to exploit a labor dispute to the benefit of millions and also changed the laws of a sovereign nation. “They don’t want extra subsidies, all this conspiracy theory nonsense about them wanting more money and more subsidies, no.” Uh-huh. Well, first we need to understand why there was even a labor dispute for Warner Brothers to exploit in the first place. [Callen] The Lord of the Rings trilogy was unique in film history. I was 8 when Lord of the Rings came out, the first Lord of the Rings, and it completely changed my life, to be honest. I still love them dearly, the trilogy. They still really mean a lot to me, coming back to them. With the added element of being something set in New Zealand, filmed in New Zealand, and whose New Zealandness is kind of intrinsic to what makes it great. To a degree, those first Lord of the Rings films, especially, I would argue, Fellowship of the Ring, couldn’t have been made anywhere else or by anyone else. Peter Jackson was very inspiring as someone, in fact, who could make films– keep making films in New Zealand, so that was certainly a goal for me. Hi. I’m Jonathan King. I’m a New Zealand filmmaker. I’ve been working in film for about 20 years, I guess? I wrote/directed a film called Black Sheep. All right, no. I’ve only worked in New Zealand. New Zealanders are very proud of Lord of the Rings, and the Middle Earth thing, but also a little bit sheepish about it too, it’s like, “It’s not all we do, you know?” And it’s funny how, like, Flight of the Conchords, even if you think about the posters on the office wall, are kind of poking fun at that straightaway. So even New Zealanders are a little bit embarrassed about that. It’s like, “Hey, we’re not JUST scenery.” “What about another exclamation mark?” “I– I don’t think that’s necessary.” [Ellis] The Lord of the Rings helped put the New Zealand film industry on the map in a big way. And part of the reason why New Zealand was an attractive location for filming was the unions were far weaker than the ones in, say, the United States. So sooner or later, the actors of New Zealand, having helped create the magic of Lord of the Rings, were bound to start wanting at least equal treatment to their counterparts in England and the U.S. “All we are asking is for fair and equitable terms and conditions, minimum terms and conditions, that our colleagues overseas enjoy.” Yeah, good luck with that… When we have overseas companies, overseas production companies, overseas studios come to New Zealand and, I believe, to Australia, they’re doing it to save money. [Rajneel Singh] So this was sort of the world of which this whole fiasco exploded. I’m Rajneel Singh. I’m a filmmaker. And I’ve been working in the New Zealand film and television industry for the last 12 years, I believe. By international terms, we are not really a film industry here in New Zealand. We are a film service. We do require these international productions to survive. If we don’t, the perception amongst the New Zealand film workers is that they’re, you know, 90% of the people will just lose their jobs instantly and will not be able to continue working. Going back a few years before the Hobbit, we essentially had a number of… problematic incidents in our local film and television industry regarding how actors… specifically actors, but you know, it applies to crew as well, have been treated by local productions. It was one of the elements that essentially had necessitated the formation of Actors Equity, and had started getting actively thinking about organizing themselves, and looking after themselves, and fighting their own battles, which nobody else was fighting. Nobody in the Lord of the Rings, who was an actor, working and living here in New Zealand, got any residuals from that. When the Hobbit came along, my understanding is that Peter Jackson was responsible for ensuring that we did. And that was the first major concession we had. That, I think, was a show of good faith by Peter Jackson, but clearly it didn’t match the Screen Actors Guild conditions of return, because we were, you know, the troublesome group down at the bottom of the world, who really should just know our place. [Ellis] So the local actors’ guild, backed – some might say pushed – by the Australian actors’ union, decide that the Hobbit might be a good, high-profile test case for us to bargain for better labor conditions. So let’s do that! [Singh] The first I ever heard about the industrial action which was sold to us as a– as an industrial action that was international with English Actors Equity, SAG involved, the MEAA in Australia, and locally, it was announced in the media, so during the press release, at which point… all hell broke loose. “Whipp go home! Whipp go home!
Whipp go home! Whipp go home!” “Why did you call for a boycott?” [Ellis] Actors Equity then releases a stop work order for actors who’ve been cast in The Hobbit, until fairer pay conditions can be agreed upon. “…tonight’s meeting, New Zealand Actors Equity members have overwhelmingly resolved “that its delegation meet with the producers of the Hobbit to hold negotiations in good faith, “on the terms and conditions for performers working on the production.” “It isn’t a boycott […] it’s not a boycott!” “Whipp go home! Whipp go home!” “These are the lives of everybody in the New Zealand film industry. Why are you targeting the Hobbit?” “We have never said there’s a boycott, it is not in any of our information.” [Ellis] Warner Brothers really does not like this. “It’s a question of confidence in our industrial relations, and the damage was done within a week of the blacklist going on.” None of the other guilds that run the industry: crew, producers, directors, editors, were informed about this. So there was somebody in my extended family who came to me and said, “You do realize, John, that by not signing you’re putting my work at risk as well?” If you are working as a set builder, and you’ve got somebody over here from America, who is doing the same work and they are earning twice what you’re earning, for doing work that you are very good at doing, at least if not a better standard than this other person, is that all right with you? The opposition to the industrial action, across the board, did not come from people thinking that, you know, Actors Equity was asking too much. It was nothing to do with that. It was a genuine, genuine fear of what Warners was going to do to retaliate. “Whipp go home!” [Ellis] The industrial action has the support of actors’ unions around the world, and big names like Karl Urban come out in support of it. But local crews and Peter Jackson are terrified that this will scare Warner Brothers away from New Zealand altogether. “And they are, frankly, worried, because the actors bought a completely frivolous action. “Well, now if they’ve done that once, “what happens in a year’s time when Warner Brothers have spent 250 mil, “they’re halfway through the film, and the actors decide to have some fun again. “It’s like it could happen all over again. They have no confidence.” They then came back with the argument, “Well, we’ll just go somewhere else, “we’re going to do it in Hungary or Poland or somewhere like that.” Social media exploded with fighting. And there were protests in the streets about what Actors Equity was doing. [Singh] Seeing Weta Workshop staff, and Richard Taylor and everyone else marching down the streets in Wellington. The idea became, hey, the Hobbit’s going to happen, but it could happen in Ireland, or it could happen in the Czech Republic, or whatever. And I think the New Zealand public kind of poo-pooed that and didn’t believe… I think we felt such ownership of it that no one believed for a second that it would go anywhere else. And I think anyone… who knows much about, I guess, about international filmmaking, is that it could quite easily have gone anywhere else. There were these really nasty, divisive forces at work. That’s what was probably most unfortunate about the way it played out, is it went from one group pushing for better workers rights, suddenly became, the film’s about to go away. Don’t worry, if we just change these labor laws, now we can save the film. I think by that stage, Equity had lost. And then, politicians were like, “Hey!” [Callen] In New Zealand, there are two major parties, left and right. Labour had been replaced by National, or right-wing government. To encourage that business to come to New Zealand, the government of Prime Minister John Key had in place a tax trade-off. “The impact of this will mean an additional rebate for the Hobbit movies of up to U.S. $7.5 million per picture.” [Ellis] John Key also happens to be a former Merrill Lynch executive. They did everything but literally roll out the red carpet for Warners. Warner Brothers flew in on jets and met overnight with the Prime Minister. [Singh]There were lobbyists that were flown down here, there were meetings, there were dinners… Suddenly the message became, “We’ve saved the Hobbit in New Zealand,” and the Prime Minister’s able to say, “I have saved– by just rewriting a few labor laws, “I’ve been able to save the Hobbit in New Zealand.” You couldn’t tell who was more excited to meet who, whether the Warners were excited to have a state dinner with– with the leader of a sovereign nation, or whether the leader of the sovereign nation was excited about meeting– meeting some studio execs. It was… it was quite farcical, if it wasn’t so serious at the time. “The government is determined to use the opportunity that the Hobbit movies presents “to highlight New Zealand as a great place to visit, as well as a great place to do business.” [Ellis] So John Key rushes legislation through Parliament, clarifying that film workers are independent contractors, removing their collective bargaining rights, and also giving Warner Brothers tens of millions in tax subsidies and offset marketing costs. “It’s good to have the uncertainty over, and have everyone now full steam ahead on producing these two movies.” [Callen] This meant that they were making even more money out of it, because they were paying us less, and they had this deal going on. So I think it was, you know, pretty– certainly cynical on… certainly cynical on the prime minister of the day’s part. It has to do with people with money making more money for themselves, and blow you people down there, if you don’t want to do the job, clear off, I’ll get somebody else who does. Now, I have nothing against people making money. But what I object to is that they make money off the poverty of other people. They create poverty. People who work in the film industry are freelance contractors; freelance contractors cannot bargain collectively. [Callen] An “iniquity” basically means grossly unfair and immoral. And such contracts, to my way of thinking, are exactly that. I think the Hobbit Law was one of the most dangerously iniquitous pieces of legislation to pass through our Parliament. [Ellis] This ties into a much bigger discussion about the way we consume media. When you discover that something like, say, The Hobbit was dogged by a massive fallout between one American studio, a sovereign government, and its people, because an underhanded change in its labor laws was written to benefit one production to the tune of tens of millions, whether you like it or not, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate the merry adventures of Bilbo and his dwarvish cabal from the fact that the films are a benchmark case in how to upend an entire film industry. The consequences from the Hobbit Law have been… mixed. In effect, it kind of mirrors what we’re seeing in movies as a whole. There are plenty of resources, but they are going to fewer and bigger productions, almost all of them international, by which I mean American. Production decreased – some even say withered – in the years that followed, in part because of bad publicity surrounding the law. But the New Zealand film industry did double their revenue in 2016, thanks to James Cameron’s 27 Avatar sequels being filmed there. [Singh] Absolute winners of this law is international film productions coming to New Zealand. So that’s great, in that it incentivizes huge productions to be here. But I don’t think those incentives in themselves grow our industry, and I think we were… I think the New Zealand public was sold the fact that these incentives will also grow the industry at the same time. And I don’t necessarily think that’s true. You only have to go into IMDB and search for “American films shot in New Zealand,” and the list will shock you, because I think people don’t actually understand the sheer number of blockbusters that are shot here. So personally as an independent– a New Zealand filmmaker, an independent filmmaker, I would have– I would love to have seen our own government finding ways to stimulate our own industry. These enormous productions in New Zealand, and the subsidies that have brought these enormous productions here, offer employment to an awful lot of people who are excited about working on those things. But we still have a situation where those enormous productions are few and far between. [Singh] Essentially, international film companies and studios are coming down here, making films cheaper, and being able to worry less about… blowback for exploitation of workers, than they are in LA. “…thousand people had some sort of job that was related to the making of the Hobbit, “and it was the capitalist– er, catalyst…” [Ellis] There are a lot of artistic choices in the Hobbit that exist completely outside of the studios in the paratext of the law, that also kind of cheapens Lord of the Rings in hindsight. Little details like Thorin charging to the Ringwraith theme, ♪ Nêbâbîtham Magânanê ♪ Tauriel and Kíli’s poorly written, rushed relationship, Legolas and Gimli becoming friends is no longer kind of a first, or the orcs what move in sunlight and cover great distance at speed… “An army, that can move in sunlight and cover great distance at speed.” Wow, Fellowship Gandalf, that kind of seems like not a big deal, considering you did not seem bothered by that very thing in The Hobbit. And the genuine disinterest the films have in characters that are actually in the books. Tying these movies in – both internally and in its marketing – so closely with the Lord of the Rings just cheapens both trilogies. [Augustine] It tries to replicate things from the trilogy without any of the soul, or the verve, or the ambition of those ones. It becomes like a machine. It feels like a machine when you’re watching it. It started to like… dampen… what was so special about Lord of the Rings, still these films that hold this extremely dear place in my heart. I can still quote it and, like, come back to it and cry my eyes out. [laughs] You feel differently taking them in now. It’s not that wonder. It’s– it’s nostalgia now? I think it’s natural that films with, like, huge impact and influence, people critically reevaluate them later. That’s natural, like any film that at the time is regarded as great, eventually undergo some sort of cycle of revaluation. It’s a case with the Hobbit, where these are films that feed off of Lord of the Rings so intensely, that you can’t help but go back to the source material and think, okay, what went wrong here? In the light of the Hobbit films people view Lord of the Rings, perhaps not negatively, but definitely in a far more critical lens. People see what has become overly saccharine or overly homogenized in the Hobbit, and it bleeds into Lord of the Rings, because that’s where it was established, that’s where the seed was planted and grew, and it’s a shame really. It’s a case of too much– like, too many cooks spoil the broth. You know, like, there’s too much Lord of the Rings in the world now. [Ellis]It’s not to say that Middle-earth fatigue wasn’t inevitable. “Dildo Baggins?” Most properties and genres go through cycles of boom and fatigue. But the genuinely soul sucking and cynical way these movies got made didn’t help. The Hobbit movies weren’t an endpoint either; they were an opening act for all the ways we can run the world of Tolkien into the ground. And the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because the Tolkien estate clung to those rights with an iron fist. But everyone has their price, and now Amazon is producing the most expensive television show in history, based on the world of Tolkien, specifically, the Lord of the Rings. Amazon has already committed a billion dollars to five seasons, all this less than two decades after an Oscar-winning trilogy based on these books. And the ironic thing? The island nation of New Zealand will likely have nothing to do with it. Our life experiences affect how we view and consume media, and it goes without saying that most of us change between childhood and adulthood, But the media we consume as children is made by adults who, intentionally or not, imbue media with their own worldviews. A child watching The Simpsons will watch this scene: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”
“If at all.” And it will go completely over their heads. But an adult watching the scene knows the context, gets the reference… “How many of you had to deal with being called Apu, or that being referenced?” has an opinion on the controversy the scene is referencing, expects others to have an opinion about it. But knowing the full context of an opinion being expressed is one thing, it’s another thing altogether to learn that people who made your favorite media weren’t being treated fairly. [Callen] Once the films had been made and were being released, we were all invited to the opening in Wellington. The third one was going to be premiered in Los Angeles. At this premiere, there was no invitation sent to any of the New Zealand actors. And it could be that we had been somewhat overly vocal about the so-called Hobbit Law. So a lot of people on Facebook were asking me, “Oh, will we see you at the premiere, John? Will you be on the red carpet in Los Angeles?” I then put on Facebook a little post saying, “Oh, by the way, for everybody who’s been asking, “the Kiwis haven’t been invited for budgetary reasons, so you know, I won’t be there.” Suddenly, I have people from the production company getting in touch, saying, “We understand you’re really, really angry, but you shouldn’t be expressing your anger on public media.” You know? And I said, “Whoa, hang on a minute, “there was nothing in what I said that indicated anger, whatsoever. “I just said what I had been quoted from my agent, from the studio.” And they said, “This isn’t good for business,” all that kind of thing, “we’re not happy with it at all.” Next thing I hear is that we are going to the premiere in Los Angeles. Nobody from Warners met us, nobody from Warners greeted us, nobody from Warners said anything to us. There was absolutely no contact with anybody from the studio, whatsoever. Absolutely extraordinary. And we thought, “Boy, we must really have pissed them off.” If that is not the case, then I would be delighted to hear that. People like Peter Jackson were fine, you know, the other actors, the English actors, you know, the big names they were all fine. There was no problem there, but nobody from the studio said tickety-boo to any of us from New Zealand. [Ellis] I’ve always been a big fan of Kesha. The music of her early years was a gateway for me letting myself like Top 40. I was a huge fan of her aesthetic, of this flagrant, shameless image. It was fun! It lets you feel like being broke and young and partying all the time was aspirational. It felt like a pass not to care about the world, at least as long as her music was on. But then years pass, and it comes out that all of those party girl songs were made during years of emotional and physical abuse by her producer, that the party girl image was a construct that she didn’t really have control over and maybe didn’t even really like… and knowing that, in a world where otherwise I probably still would have played the hell out of those early-Kesha-years music, it just doesn’t feel the same anymore. I want to go back to the way her music made me feel back in 2010, just unapologetic and dumb and glittery, but even though I want to… I can’t. ♪ Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell ♪ Because now I know the circumstances under which that music was made. And if you watch a piece of media, had an emotional reaction, whatever it was, and then learned that the context involved a certain level of exploitation, it changes the way you view the media, whether you want it to or not. Maybe Harper Lee’s old age and deteriorating mental state were exploited by her publisher, in order to knock out a quick sequel to an American classic before the door closed. Maybe Kesha’s party-girl image was carefully crafted by a sexually abusive iron-fisted producer who had 100% control of her public image. Maybe a lot of the art you consume, or even that you love, only exists because a person or people, or an entire island nation, were exploited by more powerful business interests. But, that’s capitalism. [Callen] As actors, we understand that there are many ways of going about business. Whether we’re talking about the practical, financial aspects of our industry, or whether we’re talking about the business of what we as actors do within that industry, where rights for women, rights for workers, start and end. And I think human dignity is really really important, and I think that there are employers around the world who exploit people. that is why the Screen Actors Guild, and Actors Equity in England, Australia and New Zealand – and we here are directly tied to the Australians – why we exist: to look after the interests of people, so that we don’t fall under the thumb of the bullyboys, so that we– we are respected as people and as artists, and that our views are no less worthy because we haven’t got fat wallets. [Ellis] Profit driven exploitation doesn’t always have the last word. Kesha’s still locked into a contract with the label that enabled her abuser, but at least he’s not there anymore? And there are elements of the Hobbit Law that are up for repeal now that Labour is back in power, particularly the bit about outlawing collective bargaining, which to me is the most heinous part. But these are only half measures, particularly the Hobbit Law repeal, which itself is no guarantee. I reached out to several people affiliated with the various New Zealand film guilds, but none are making comment to the media about the law until the law gets repealed, if it does get repealed… [Frodo] “How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand, “There is no going back.” [Ellis] If you discover that a brand or a company, like a bank or something, did something bad or unethical, it isn’t surprising. People just kind of shrug and go yep, that’s how banks roll. And maybe you’ll close your account and go to a different bank, but the reality is that you probably don’t care enough to even do that much, because unethical multinational corporations doing terrible things to people in the name of profit is just, kind of, the world. You don’t have the brain space to care about all of them. We pay monopolistic cable companies for internet access, We have 401ks run by morally bankrupt hedge fund managers that we will never know, we still buy iPhones, we still buy cheap clothes, while paying vague glib lip service to the knowledge that people are being exploited somewhere so we in America can boss Siri around. In some ways, we engage with a multitude of brands and corporations every day that someone, somewhere, is getting exploited by, often cruelly so. But media is different. Media is personal. Media is designed to provide an escape, to stir emotions, to inspire. The film industry is by no means the industry with the highest incidence of sexual harassment, but people care more about it when it gets exposed in the film industry, because the film industry creates media that hits emotional nerves. And then when we find out that something we loved was made by someone who said or did bad things, it’s like betrayal. When people ask whether it’s moral to separate art from the artist, or in this case, product from the multinational conglomerate, what they’re really asking is: How can I go back to consuming media like I did when I was a kid? When the most context I had or cared about was who the author of my favorite book was, or why I like this actor, or what Kesha’s real name and birthday is. But as an adult, you’re expected to be an ethical consumer of media. And it’s somewhat inevitable that some people resent that, because consuming media the way children do is comforting. Consuming media like The Hobbit as an adult is complicated and in this day and age, it’s hard to do so innocently. And I totally understand wanting to return to that innocence, And I don’t really have an argument against that worldview other than… that’s adulthood. “Well, I’m back.”