Gerry and the film-makers – or how to grovel to keep The Hobbit from emigrating

Betcha Gerry will come up with a bigger subsidy if I threaten to stick this up him.

Size does matter, of course, and if you are big enough you can get the Key cabinet to turn all sorts of tricks for you.

Especially when Hollywood movie moguls are involved, Alf’s Nat mates are eager to perform – and to please.

Want new labour laws?

Yep. We can fix it.

Want bigger subsidies?

Yep. We can fix that too.

But what you get might depend on who you talk with.

John Key seems open to the idea of changing the labour laws to facilitate production of The Hobbit in New Zealand.

Bill English scoffs at that idea. But he has not ruled out tossing more public money at the film-makers.

Hence we are treated to news from Stuff of the sort that should bother anyone who believes the government should keep right out of industrial scraps.

But no.

The Government may rewrite employment laws and increase the $60 million subsidies available for The Hobbit as it fights to keep the two movies in New Zealand.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday the Government was concerned the movies might be made overseas, and he offered to meet Warner Bros representatives when they visit next week.

The prospect of the Hobbit project being lost was triggered by trade union action and an international ban by unionised actors on the movie during employment negotiations.

Key reckons this has made New Zealand a much more hostile and unpredictable environment for movie-makers.

“All we can do is to respond to their concerns and give them the assurances they need.”

But it seems Warners was also bothered by a Supreme Court ruling that a model maker on The Rings trilogy, who worked for Wellington production company Three Foot Six, was an employee, not a contractor.

And so The Boss is saying

He would seek advice on a possible change that would remove the ambiguity in the law and open the way for the US$500m movies to go ahead.

“That’s the area that they have concerns … and they need to be sure they can make the movie without being injuncted in the courts,” Mr Key said.

Finance Minister Bill English has come up with a rough estimate of taxpayer support for The Hobbit: it has cost us $50m to $60m already.

He did not rule out extra assistance, but said the Government had not considered it.

He poured cold water on a possible labour law change. “I don’t imagine changing the labour laws over one argument like this.”

That’s as it should be.

But Gerry Brownlee is a movie buff and we can expect him to lean on the cabinet to do what The Hobbit movie-makers want done.

He told a film industry gathering last year:

As Economic Development Minister, I have a strong interest in the continued success of the screen industry because it makes a real contribution to both the culture of New Zealand, and the New Zealand economy.

Look at the most recent statistics released last Friday:

– you mentioned the screen production sector increased gross revenues by 18% to $1,266 million in 2007/2008 – if you break that down….the gross revenue from screen production from foreign productions rose 79 percent to $542 million.

– and many different regions displayed increases in economic benefit from film production….that was especially so in Wellington and also Auckland.

As a nation we are now on the global map for screen production and post-production.

Whoopee do.

But the trouble with what we are doing to curry favour with Warners is to open the way for other big companies to threaten to take their business elsewhere if we are not appropriately fawning.

If some of The Hobbit action took place in Eketahuna, of course, Alf would be dead keen on state intervention, and on moving Parliament into urgency to pass new labour laws, and on sacking a few more public servants to find the money to give to the film-makers.

But he can find no hobbit holes in his home town, and hence is more inclined to Sir Roger Douglas’s thinking. It is not the government’s job to pick winners.

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