Industry conference begins with Hobbit panel discussion

By Hugh Sundae

From left, Russell Brown, Philippa Boyens, Richard Fletcher and Penelope Borland. Photo / Greg Bowker
From left, Russell Brown, Philippa Boyens, Richard Fletcher and Penelope Borland. Photo / Greg Bowker

A panel discussion that aimed to dissect the recent industrial action surrounding the filming of The Hobbit has opened the SPADA (Screen Production and Development Association) conference in Auckland this morning.

Called 'The Hobbit: What Really Happened from a Producer's Perspective', the panel included Hobbit co-producer and co-writer Philippa Boyens, SPADA Chief Executive Penelope Borland and producer (and ex-SPADA CEO) Richard Fletcher.

Chaired by Media 7 host Russell Brown (who joked that news footage of him arriving at the Actors Equity meeting cut away just before he was refused entry), the panelists spoke for 45 minutes before questions were invited from the audience, which included actors Robyn Malcolm, Peter Elliott and actors' agent Graham Dunster.

Borland addressed the issue of why a meeting didn't take place between Actors Equity and SPADA during the dispute.

"The only way Equity would meet - that they conveyed to us - was if we agreed to enter into negotiations for a binding collective agreement with terms and conditions no less than those of performers in Australia," she said.

Asked by Brown why SPADA couldn't do that, Richard Fletcher said lawyers' advice indicated entering into a collective agreement would be illegal.

"We offered to meet on a non-agenda basis," said Fletcher, "but we weren't prepared to go into a meeting with a fixed agenda and a pre-determined outcome, because it wasn't conducive to a proper negotiation."

Simon Whipp of the Australian Media and Arts Alliance (MEAA), predictably came in for criticism.

"He's got a very clear understanding of the Australian situation, but doesn't understand the New Zealand situation," said Fletcher.

"The reason residuals [payments to actors for merchandising and subsequent use of their image} went was because on Hercules and Zena at the time, they doubled actors' pay rates, and bought out the residuals."

"They're not aware of that history, and where we've evolved."

Penelope Borland said she didn't think the MEAA really wanted to meet in the first place.

"We believe they preferred to take industrial action against those productions because it had worked in Australia."

During the audience questions, actors' agent Graham Dunster asked why the panel was only made up of producers.

"Most of what I've heard today has been 'I think this' and 'I've heard this and somebody said that'," he said. "Did it occur to anyone to have Simon Whipp or someone from Equity along to respond to the accusations and unsubstantiated things that have been floating about for the past few weeks ?"

Fletcher replied that it was a producers conference and they had the documentation to back up what they were saying.

"You can believe it or don't believe it, it's up to you."

Criticism was also directed at the media for its coverage of the situation.

"Wellington media was very business focused and supportive of the retention of The Hobbit, where the Auckland media...took a very different approach," said Fletcher in response to a question from the floor.

Penelope Borland agreed. "The whole thing suffered from the soundbite syndrome as well, and a lot of us involved were very frustrated by that. Which is I'm sure why Peter [Jackson} only agreed to that one extended interview."

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