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SPADA 2010: what really happened around The Hobbit?

Finlay MacDonald, Conference MC, opened the session by observing, “No living creatures have been, or will be, harmed during this conference.”

From the moment the schedule was published, the first thought in some minds was, no doubt: Will we learn anything new from this session? Will there be any novel, and more relevantly, any useful insights into the recent dispute between New Zealand’s Actors Equity and/or MEAA on the one hand and the producers of The Hobbit and/or SPADA on the other? When the tagline phrase “from a Producer’s perspective” was added to the session’s title it was tempting to conclude in advance: Unlikely…

When it was announced on Radio New Zealand by Phil Wallington that actors would be represented at the session by Robyn Malcolm and others, it seemed that the chances of something new emerging from the discussion had increased. Alas, it was not to be…

Three Foot Seven’s Philippa Boyens began by explaining Warner’s offer of a “residuals pool for (NZ) actors” on The Hobbit – the lack of which was the cause of some dissatisfaction amongst some Kiwi actors on Lord of the Rings.

Moderator Russell Brown: “A benevolent corporation? I’m struggling to believe this!”

Boyens explained the offer in terms of the recognition of the need for the central core cast group of dwarves to work over a long period as a team; hence the need for harmony in their terms of engagement. Were Equity and the MEAA aware of the residuals offer? Would it have made any difference to their modus operandi? No answer to those questions today. The question was also asked whether NZ Equity were even aware of the FIA (International Federation of Actors) resolution made at a meeting in Europe. SPADA president Richard Fletcher: “That’s still unclear.” Whether the USA’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was pulling any strings also could not be answered today.

The following discussion canvassed Jackson’s initial response – Boyens suggesting one could be excused for reacting emotionally when one feels one has a gun at one’s head. Fletcher’s statement that the only way ahead was for SPADA and Equity to get around a table and talk led to an inconclusive debate over why such talks hadn’t happened earlier. The differences in communication methodologies and strategies between Australia and NZ, and the MEAA rep Simon Whipp’s apparent ignorance of the Kiwi way of doing things got an airing. Fletcher also asked what the structure of the connection between NZ’s Equity and the MEAA was – although “What is the chain of command?” was perhaps loaded phrasing. The timing of Equity’s consultation with local actors (members and others) did not come up, although mistrust, of the MEAA in particular, did.

Others have previously posed whether the relocation of the shoot was ever actually a genuine possibility, given that in green-lighting the project Warners had also given a principal photography start date of February 2011. But Boyens was adamant that when Warners asked Three Foot Seven to crunch the numbers for England (not Eastern Europe), “It was GONE!”

Naturally the Bryson case emerged, and was described as real ‘frightener’ for Warners, risk-averse and strongly desirous of a settled production environment. The issue of whether the government’s new law actually does what it’s intended to do was not raised.

In the Herald last week John Drinnan suggested that “…it would be a brave person who would stand up in the session and question SPADA’s handling of the issue…”

That brave person turned out to be actors’ agent Graham Dunster. “It all seems to be ‘I heard this’, ‘Someone said that’ – very little fact. What I know doesn’t tally with what’s been said here.” Dunster then asked whether it wouldn’t have been a good idea to have Simon Whipp present to answer the various accusations. Apart from Fletcher’s explaining that this was a “producers’ event”, the suggestion was not addressed, and their discussion dropped into an inconclusive squabble over the status of the documents sent out as draft contracts early in the year…

At the end of the Q&A, Penelope Borland made a point of welcoming actors Peter Elliot and Robyn Malcolm to the session, and asked if they would like to say something. But before any words could be spoken moderator Russell Brown appeared to shut them down with the statement that we were out of time, and it was left to Philippa Boyens to conclude by saying that they were all thrilled that The Hobbit would go ahead, with its superb cast of NZ actors, overseas actors and our superb crew.

There seemed to be a degree of disappointment for some that there was no opportunity to reassert actors’ previous commitment to no industrial action during the filming of The Hobbit.

However, the confirmation that talks aimed at renegotiating the Pink Book (the guidelines for terms and conditions for engaging actors) would definitely go ahead, with the intention of completing them by March 2011, was a very positive note – as was the suggestion of a hui of all the industry guilds aimed at improving communication within the industry overall. If the dispute means people will now talk over issues more freely and openly than before, then maybe in the long run some good might have come out of it all.