Our American readers might not have heard about this, but there was a recent situation that put into question whether the Hobbit movies would be shot here in New Zealand or would be taken somewhere overseas.

The short version is this – the Australian actors union, acting on behalf of the New Zealand actors union (which merged with them several years ago), demanded that Sir Peter Jackson and the other producers of The Hobbit negotiate a union contract for all of the actors on the project that weren’t going to be covered by the American Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contract. SAG had put their weight behind this demand, telling their members (in other words, almost every speaking role in the movie) not to work on the project unless the producers reached an agreement with the Australian union.

This caused, to put it mildly, consternation.

New Zealand is Middle Earth, except we also have the internet, and antibiotics. And not as many trolls.

Local opinion seems to be pretty one-sided against the union that caused this hullabaloo, but I’m not going to jump on that bandwagon. I think there’s something inherently wrong when certain workers on a project are allowed to collectively negotiate their working conditions while other workers on the same project are forbidden by law from doing so.

Unions aren’t inherently good or evil, just like corporations aren’t inherently good or evil. Either side of the labor/management equation can get out of hand, and that’s why it’s good to have the other side to provide counterbalance.

So in this case, I think the union had a laudable goal, but chose the wrong time, the wrong target, and the wrong tactics to achieve that goal. They saw Big Hollywood Money on the horizon, and their eagerness to use that money to reinforce their standing in the industry caused them to get ahead of themselves and use ham-fisted, clumsy tactics in an attempt to demonize Peter Jackson, who by all reports is fair and generous toward anyone who works with him.

The square has a magical floaty ball, put there by Gandalf

Every rally needs balloons.

I think it's time for a crossover movie, don't you? Wonder Woman would kick Arwen's pointy-eared ass.

And as it turns out, that clumsy rhetoric was intended to achieve a result that would actually be illegal in New Zealand – since film workers in New Zealand are considered independent contractors rather than employees, they aren’t allowed to collectively bargain for their wages and working conditions.

So add poor understanding of the law to the list of cockups.

Lots of people wore shirts with their jobs. I would have done the same, but "Jack of All Trades, Kind of Average at Most of Them" didn't fit.

Kiwis love them some Sir Peter Jackson

The union figured out their blunder a few weeks ago, and repealed the no-work order, but the damage had already been done.  Warner Bros (which along with MGM is funding the two Hobbit movies) was now concerned that there could be labor strife in New Zealand which would put into danger their $500,000,000 investment. The industry had to scramble to show the studio that there’s nothing to see here, no trouble officer, we were just roughhousing, no need to call our parents, we’re all friends, kumbaya et cetera.

So yesterday some Warners execs came to NZ to meet with the Hobbit producers, and New Zealanders of every stripe gathered for rallies in the country’s major cities, to show their support for Peter and his team.

The odd thing is, a rally is usually designed to inflame emotions, not calm them. Think of the last rally you attended or saw on the news. “Get fired up!” “We’re the good guys; they’re the bad guys!” “Don’t let those dirty bastards take away your [guns / right to marry / right to choose / right to life / freedom of religion / freedom to hate people of another religion / tea]!!!”

Even the word “rally” evokes the idea of gathering a group of people, getting them all hot and bothered, and sending them to storm a castle or something.

The only violence was by a cartoon alien

When you think of it that way, this was sort of an anti-rally. The whole point was to show how calm, friendly, and unified New Zealand is. As a matter of fact, the only mention of the union in all the speeches came from a letter written by Peter Jackson. Other than that, it was a love-fest.

Cool shirt, nice butt

A different shirt & butt combo

So the crowd gathered and gathered. Eventually there were somewhere between 2000-3000 people, which is no Million Man March, but still a lot of people.

If you scaled up the attendance to match the percentage of general population, in America this would be about 150,000-225,000 people, in only one of the several rallies that were being held at the same time. Lots of people here care about this project staying in New Zealand.

Lots of people brought cameras and tape recorders, including one guy wearing a Weta Digital shirt who appeared to have one of the bitchin’ 3D cameras that were used to shoot AVATAR.

This camera can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Radio is still a medium. Who knew?

All this time, people kept coming…

The crowd gathers

At about 12:45, the speeches started, starting with Her Honor the Mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown.

She said she pulled that green elf jacket out of the closet for the first time since the Return Of The King premiere

Next was the head of Weta Workshop, Sir Richard Taylor.

Richard’s a big guy, kind of goofy and affable, with the common touch. I met him briefly when I toured Weta Workshop, and his enthusiasm over what he does for a living is charming and contagious.

"New Zealand is still the greatest destination in the world for film making."

Richard read a letter from Peter Jackson, which as I mentioned had the only anti-union rhetoric of the event. Here’s a sample:

Turning us into another state of Australia under the sway of a destructive organization carries the very real risk of destroying the great big heart that beats inside our films.

Them’s fightin’ words, but I think Peter had cause to be upset. He’s proven himself to be a tireless proponent of the NZ film industry, so being attacked as a heartless greedy producer must have felt like it came out of left field (to use a baseball analogy which won’t make any sense to most New Zealanders).

Next up was the casting director for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who is also the casting director for The Hobbit duology, Liz Mullane.

"Having experienced working on these films, I know more than anyone that we can do it. We're the only place that can do it."

I’m going to write her name a few more times, just in case she’s in the habit of googling herself. Liz Mullane. Liz Mullane, Liz Mullane, Liz Mullane. Liz Mullane Liz Mullane Liz Mullane Liz Mullane.

[Ms. Mullane, I just wanted you to know that I’ve stopped shaving my feet if you need another Hobbit, and I’ve stopped washing my hair if you need another Man. Or I could have hairy feet and greasy hair, as the half-breed result of a Saturday night at the Prancing Pony, when a Hobbit man bought a few too many ales for a Man woman. Call me!]

Next up was Ted Guys (though I’m not sure if that’s how he spells his name) who runs the Hobbit Tours. He talked about the tourism that would come to NZ from the movies. He referenced The Sound Of Music, which is still drawing tourists to sing and twirl on that hill in Austria, 60 years after the movie was released.

Next was Elizabeth Crummet, an American producer who came to New Zealand years ago because she wanted to be around people who loved movies, not mass-market cinematic commercials for Happy Meals and action figures.

Next up was Matt Appleton, a costumer who talked about some of the unsung heroes behind the scenes.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to create hundreds of handmade chainmail shirts? This guy does.

Next was Chris Guise, a guy who conned his way into Weta 8 years ago and kept reinventing himself to keep from being unemployed.

Next was Gino Acevedo, another American, who was recruited from KNB Effects to work on the first (canceled) version of King Kong, and then for the (not canceled) Lord of the Rings.

This dude created the paint scheme for Gollum. (I never knew Gollum knew how to paint.)

Finally was Mike, who didn’t give his last name. He works at Weta Digital and just wrapped his first feature as a director (I think?).

The recurring theme of all these little speeches was that the New Zealand film industry is small but vibrant and growing. Everyone kept it positive and upbeat, especially this guy, whom everyone seemed to know:

Play that drum, man. Play it hard.

The vibe was low-key and fun, like a carnival (but without the carnies or chlamydia).

Look at that little guy in the middle. Recognize his face?

I think ... maybe ... just maybe ... he's the face model for Gollum!

Sorry, that was kind of mean. Sorry, mister Gollum-face-guy. I’m sure you’re a nice person, my precious.

Some Hobbit must have gotten *really* drunk to make love with a kiwi...

Finally, Richard Taylor made some closing remarks and people spontaneously started letting their balloons go.

"Fly! Be free!"

I sure hope we're not in the flight path for Wellington Airport...

So that was that. The speeches ended at around 1:30 and the crowd peacefully dispersed. I wandered around with my friends Ryan & Jenifer and their son Hawk for a few hours, then trundled on home to cultivate my foot hair.

We still don’t know if the Hobbit movies will stay here. Ireland, England, and some of the eastern European countries are campaigning hard, offering tax breaks and other incentives to pull the production to their countries.

I’m not a New Zealander and I don’t really have a horse in this race, but I would be sad to see the Hobbit made somewhere else. The Lord of the Rings series has become a part of New Zealand pride, and I hope the prequels can be more of the same.

To close, here’s a picture of Hawk. He’s a cool little dude.

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