One of the most popular products exported from New Zealand has been the atmospheric Lord of the Rings films. They invoke images of a far off land called Middle Earth complete with massive mountains, panoramic landscapes, and furry wee Hobbits fighting the evil Dark Lord. The next film based in the same fantasy world, The Hobbit, is to be shot in NZ next year.
NZ Actors Equity, the union for actors in NZ, has called upon international actors unions to black the film production. Blacking is a refusal by workers to work on a particular project, in this case a film. The International Federation of Actors have agreed, and so unions like the Canadian Actors Equity, US Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild, UK Actors Equity, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA, Australia) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio have boycotted the film.
NZ Actors Equity has called for the boycott because the makers of the film The Hobbit are refusing to engage NZ performers on collectively union-negotiated agreements, thus meaning that NZ actors are being hired on worse pay and conditions than their overseas counterparts. They are seeking a collective agreement with the studio, and the studio has not agreed.
In an extraordinary four page attack on actors and NZ Actors Equity, millionaire capitalist and possible director of The Hobbit ‘Sir’ Peter Jackson has claimed Actors Equity are a tiny organisation that don’t represent all actors (which is untrue), and that they are being bullied by their larger Australian union, the MEAA, so that the MEAA can get a foothold in NZ. This is weird as Actors Equity members, in a good display of a minor bit of internationalism, voted a few years ago to ally themselves and work with the MEAA!
This attack is unsurprising, as the whole glittering spectacle of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films have rested upon old-fashioned exploitation of not only actors, but also literally thousands of extras, film hands and technicians, special effects people and prop/costume/set makers that would make any industrialist in nineteenth century textile mills in Northern England proud. That is, by paying workers as little as possible, and getting out the whip and cracking workers to work as hard and as long as possible, so that the films can be cranked out as quickly as possible, so that in the end millions and millions of dollars of profit can flow into the coffers of Jackson and the studio as rapidly as possible. Jackson is a capitalist – he lives, vampire like, by sucking the labour out of what at times seemed like most of the ‘creative’ workforce in NZ, and the more he lives, the more he sucks. Then, of course, he claims creative credit and academy awards for all of the work of thousands of others.
By all accounts – and pretty much everybody in Wellington knows somebody who worked on The Lord of the Rings — it was common to work ridiculous hours of about 10 to 14 hours per day, and as well as weekends, on that set. Filming and after production was done frantically. And they were paid shoddily. Film workers were known disparagingly (and in racist fashion) by Americans who were working on the set as ‘Mexicans with cellphones’ because they could be instantly hired for very little money. They worked for less money on the set than their overseas counterparts.
Workers in NZ’s notoriously anti-worker film industry are ‘self-employed independent contractors’ on short term, temporary contracts, thus cutting unions and basic working conditions out of the picture. Actors Equity write ‘For some years performers in New Zealand have struggled on non-union contracts. These contracts provide no minimum guarantees of wages or working conditions, no residual payments and no cancellation payments in the event the performer’s contract is cancelled.’ Further, it is standard in the NZ film industry to work a 10 hour day (with the only perks being free food and drink all day, plus a 45 minute catered lunch break). Yet big NZ and American producers are always trying to extend these hours, and expect workers to work six days weeks. Because they are ’self-employed’ (they clearly are not), capitalists can avoid paying workers sick leave, holiday leave, as well as get around other basic working conditions, like laws around being fired. Many film workers experience intense spells of work followed by long periods of unemployment. These conditions grind people down, and many get burnt out by the industry.
Those who challenge this sick state of affairs get bullied out of their jobs. James Bryson, a model maker, was fired in 2001 after he was seconded to a subsidiary firm, 3 foot 6 Limited, from the Weta Workshop, the workshop behind the special effects, costumes and props for the Lord of the Rings. In a famous case, he challenged the firing on the grounds he was an employee and not self-employed, and thus could claim an unjustified dismissal. He won! But he subsequently was blacklisted from the film industry. And workers are still considered to be self-employed, and hence wages and conditions are kept down to a minimum. Hollywood is attracted to NZ because the wages and conditions here are much worse than in the US, Canada, UK and Australia.
In a move of bitter retaliation, Jackson has threatened that Warner Brothers will remove the already fraught NZ$200 million show called The Hobbit from NZ, thus cutting thousands of jobs, and instead film it in Eastern Europe where wages are even lower and conditions worse. This is called capital flight or offshoring. All just so he and his capitalist mates at Warners can profit even more from The Hobbit, and get around those unruly, uppity workers. NZ Actors Equity has responded by calling for Jackson to enter negotiations with the union for fair and basic pay and conditions. They are considering further action if Jackson does not. It would be good to see this struggle extended to film technicians too. The NZ Film and Video Technicians Guild ought to support it, so in turn they will get support from Actors Equity for their struggle.
Jackson is not pro-worker or pro-union. Like any capitalist, he is anti-worker. The saga over The Hobbit shows us that the heart of the cultural spectacle, Hollywood, loudly projects a spectacular image – in this case, a boy’s own tale of nice wee hobbits who live in little underground houses in the shire (read: nice rural England), who then meet nice white-haired wizards and pointy-eared elves, and then all go off, via some spectacular scenery, to fight the evil dark satanic hordes (read: non-whites living in far off lands) – to hide the real course of things: that the film spectacle is based on real human relations. Relations of exploitation. Films might be enjoyable bits of escapism, but they’re still based on class exploitation, just like every other commodity in society.