Ructions in the Screen Shire

When Minister for Employment Iain Lees-Galloway told ONE News just over two weeks ago that the government would repeal the Hobbit Law, all hell let loose.

The Hobbit Law prevents screen industry workers from unionising by making all film workers contractors not employees, thereby preventing collective bargaining.

To understand why the Hobbit Law was forced on the screen industry, there’s a need for a bit of history around two key events: The Bryson vs. Three Foot Six case which was settled in the NZ Supreme Court in 2005, and the move by Actors Equity NZ to unionise on The Hobbit in 2010. And I’m going to simplify things because it’s all a bit complex and convoluted.

The Supreme Court decision in 2005 saw James Bryson classified as an employee not a contractor and therefore able to pursue a personal grievance claim against Three Foot Six, the production company that made The Lord of The Rings.

In 2010, Equity NZ made an untimely play around The Hobbit to collectively bargain to improve working conditions for actors with the support of Australia’s Entertainment union the MEAA and the Screen Actors Guild of America among others.

Sir Peter Jackson and the Techos got up in arms about the potential loss of work and revenue to the screen industry due to the actors’ actions, and the National government swung in behind the pro-business argument. At the same time, Warner Bros., the studio behind The Hobbit saw a massive opportunity to squeeze greater concessions from the NZ Government, and duly did.

The upshot was the rushed through Hobbit Law, which prevents film workers being classified as employees and therefore stops them from unionising and collectively bargaining, and supposedly providing certainty for international studios and producers when assessing NZ as a destination for film productions.

The Techos, who have recently rebranded as the Screen Industry Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand, were understandably nervous with Lees-Galloway’s announcement—their concern is about a loss of work and revenue such as was threatened around The Hobbit and which became a reality during the dry patch in 2012 and 2013 because the screen incentives for international production were uncompetitive and the NZ dollar was high. At the time, many either moved overseas or out of the industry. The National Government in 2014 finally came to the party and upped the incentives. International production into New Zealand began to flow again and our crew capability and capacity, while still wearing scars from that time, has returned.

It’s important to say at this point that directors, editors, writers and composers very rarely work on international productions—they depend on local production to survive—and on having capable technicians available to work with them on those productions. Technicians work across both international and local productions, while most producers work on local productions and a handful on international ones.

Back to two weeks ago. It seemed like battle lines were being redrawn with the actors, together with directors and editors, stunties, and composers on one side wanting collective bargaining to improve what they view as their poor terms and conditions, the writers as a union wanting to protect the rights of workers, and the producers uncommitted. On the other side were the technicians who don’t want to see their livelihoods eroded or eliminated should the number of international productions coming here slow down or cease, while also wanting the choice to work as contractors and not employees. And driving the issue, a worker-oriented government wanting to get rid of unjust legislation that is also illegal according to an international convention NZ is a signatory to.

After an initial flurry of activity from the individual guilds we all settled down to talk and then we agreed at the government’s invitation to all settle down to talk in a working group to resolve the situation to the satisfaction of all parties. The ball is essentially now in the Government’s court to sort it out with all our input. We will keep you posted on developments.

For a more in-depth look at the issues, a recent NZ Herald article is well worth reading and I highly recommend you follow the threads and read the associated articles. You can find it here.


Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director


Last updated on 20 February 2018