Film workers’ rights to be restored as New Zealand announces repeal of controversial “Hobbit Law”

Has New Zealand been too friendly towards Hollywood, at the expense of its own workforce? New Zealand’s incoming Labour Government promises to restore certain employment protections for film cast and crew, by repealling the controversial “Hobbit Law” within the next 100 days.

New Zealand is famous for being film-friendly. Gorgeous landscapes provide dramatic settings not far from the city comforts, and generous financial incentives are available in the form of government grants. Since the 1990s in particular, the country’s film and television industry has participated in many large, complex international productions: such films include The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings franchises, The Chronicles of Narnia, the 2005 King Kong remake, Avatar, District 9, The Lovely Bones, and – a personal favourite of mine – The Piano (pictured above). 

Earlier this year, Statistics NZ announced that the country’s screen industry revenue had increased to $3.3 billion in 2016, with film production revenue doubling to more than $1 billion. In addition to direct revenues, film and television content also promotes and enhances New Zealand’s “national brand,” with many tourists visiting the country specifically because of what they’ve seen on screen.

But has New Zealand been too friendly towards Hollywood, at the expense of its own workforce? New Zealand’s so-called “Hobbit Law” came into force in 2010 as a direct result of actors on Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit threatening industrial action. Warner Brothers’ Studio suggested it would retaliate by relocating the US $500m production elsewhere, with Jackson mentioning the possibility of filming in Eastern Europe instead. To keep The Hobbit in New Zealand, Parliament passed the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill 2010 to limit screen industry workers’ rights.

Tourists visit “Hobbiton” in Matamata, New Zealand

The issue gained international notoriety when actors and crewmembers expressed concerns about working standards and conditions. The dispute primarily focused on employment status, and whether film workers are considered “employees” or simply “independent contractors.” The International Federation of Actors (FIA) passed a resolution for its members to boycott signing contracts on The Hobbit unless and until the producers agreed to a “collective bargaining agreement.”

At the time, New Zealand’s government was conservative, anti-trade union, and understood that production of The Hobbit was important for continued investment in the country’s film industry. To keep Hollywood happy, the Hobbit Law classified individuals who work in film production as “independent contractors” by default, and therefore not entitled to statutory protection otherwise afforded to “employees.” Accordingly, since 2010, companies have not been obligated to offer their film workers written employment agreements, and certain freedoms to form unions have been substantially limited.

Then-Prime Minister John Key (pictured) said New Zealand appealed to Hollywood because it had “a flexible labour market and an educated workforce which is not heavily unionised”

Many in New Zealand considered that the financial subsidies and specific laws made for Hollywood’s benefit were “extortionate,” and an embarassment to the country. The New York Times’ announced “New Zealand will remain the middle of Middle-earth, at a price” under its headline, “New Zealand Bends and ‘Hobbit’ Stays.”

However, following the recent September 2017 elections, the Conservative party is no longer in power. The country’s new Labour Government promises that the Hobbit Law will be repealed within the next 100 days. Noting that the law breached a number of international labour conventions, incoming Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said he is “looking to restore a lot of workers’ rights that have been diminished over the last nine years.”

Related image
Slow West (2015) starring Michael Fassbender was set in Colorado, but filmed in New Zealand

Given the economic importance of these industries, it comes as no surprise that the quality and quantity of workers in New Zealand is a key factor to attracting investment. The Film Commission touts that New Zealand offers some of the most talented and experienced professionals in the world, with the “crew-depth, facilities, talented cast and technical wizards” needed to bring a project to life.

Might repealling the Hobbit Law risk reducing New Zealand’s attractiveness to big production companies who seek business-friendly employment laws? Legislative changes could easily rekindle debates surrounding non-standard employment and collective union representation, especially in light of “Gig Economy” lawsuits against Uber, Deliveroo and Lyft. It should be noted that some screen industry workers – like their counterparts working for taxi and delivery companies – do appreciate the flexibility of being independent contractors. What seems to be of greater importance to cast, crew, and studios alike is the certainty of wages and working conditions.