Thursday, September 30, 2010

Union Flap Over The Hobbit

You may or may not have seen this item a few years ago, when George Lucas was getting set to make the final Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith. Oldman was offered a role in the movie, to play the voice of the animated character General Grievous (remember the robot warrior with a bad cough?).

Oldman was set to do the job, but balked when he was asked to work overseas so Lucas could circumvent the actors' union. It was a highly principled stance and he gave up the job for it. It is one more reason I admire this actor: his respect for his colleagues, including this kind of professional solidarity.

There is now a growing stink over Sir Peter Jackson's much anticipated film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The union representing actors in New Zealand asked for a meeting to negotiate contracts, and they were refused.

That union works in solidarity with a larger union based in Australia, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. So the MEAA made a call, but got the same answer: No meetings, no contracts.

It has now escalated with a withering tirade by Jackson complete with threats to move production of the movie to eastern europe. Internationally, unions are calling for the project to be blacked by workers.

The actor Bruce Hopkins, who appeared as Gamling in the highly profitable Lord of the Ring trilogy, offers a voice of reason on this in this New Zealand news article. He is personally very sympathetic to Jackson, and points out that the Lord of the Ring trilogy was a risk at the time the films were made. It was a circumstance where actors might find it reasonable to invest in a project by working without a contract, for lower wages or other concessions.

On the other hand, it is pretty well assured that The Hobbit will be a great financial success and the case can be made that with this production, there should be standard union contracts for the artists making the product. It's not like this is some small independent film being made by unknown filmmakers who have no access to capital.

Actors frequently work for free in order to promote themselves and make themselves affordable for small-budget ventures. Of the three films I've made, all of them independent features, two were "profit-sharing" contracts that guarantee no payment at all. The third paid me a negotiated fee at the end of production. Actors slave away rehearsing theatrical projects in order to get themselves and their work before the public. The investment of labor is enormously high, and this makes the actor highly exploitable.

But as Hopkins says, "There are people making hundreds of millions of dollars through the industry here so why can't we have a sustainable living for actors and crews in this country? ...we can't keep treating the local industry as if we have to be grateful for the job and like we have to compete against eastern European countries by trying to be the lowest bidder."

In other words, treat "the talent" like professionals.

Indeed, the threat to move production out of the country and go to a country where the labor is even cheaper is simply offshoring. That's a problem we have here in the U.S.: companies moving jobs away from our country in order to exploit cheap labor overseas. Perversely, companies are praised for doing this and rewarded.

When there is such low financial risk and such a promise of profit, they really should meet with the union, establish a reasonable contract, and defuse this stink lest it follow the film around the world.

[Photo: a 1919 actors' strike]

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