NZ may lose Hobbit filming to offshore location

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - New Zealand may lose the filming of “The Hobbit” movies, with financial backers Warner Brothers making arrangements to shift the production offshore, director Peter Jackson warned Thursday.

Jackson’s production company, Wingnut Films, and the union Actors’ Equity have been at loggerheads over pay deals for actors in the New Zealand 660 million dollar (US$500 million) two-film prequel to the highly successful “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Shooting of the two 3-D films is due to begin in February.

Wingnut Films said in a statement that the actors’ move in threatening to boycott the production had undermined Warner Brothers confidence in the industry “and they are now, quite rightly, very concerned about the security of their $500m investment.”

“Next week Warners are coming down to New Zealand to make arrangements to move the production offshore,” Jackson’s production company said. “It appears we cannot make films in our own country even when substantial financing is available.”

Jackson said while they would fight to keep the films in New Zealand, the decision ultimately rests with Warner Brothers.

The statement gave no indication of where the films’ production might be moved, but co-producer Fran Walsh, Jackson’s partner, said Warners already had an executive in England scoping filming locations and assessing the studio used for shooting the Harry Potter series for relocating “The Hobbit” movies. U.S. studio Warners owns the studio complex.

Production of “The Hobbit” was given the green light from Warners and New Line Cinema at the weekend, with Jackson as director.

Late Wednesday, more than a thousand film technicians marched through the capital, Wellington, demanding actors end their dispute over contracts. They chanted “Save The Hobbit” and waved banners that said, “Keep it Made in New Zealand” and “SOS Hobbits.”

The head of Wellington’s Weta Workshop film production house, Richard Taylor, said Thursday that he “can only hope that their (Warner Bros.) ongoing intention is to see it (the films) made here (New Zealand). I have to cling on to hope. The alternate is too dire to think about. But I’m always positive that good can come out of such things,” he told New Zealand’s National Radio.

Weta Workshop “has been hired on the film for a number of months … and were confident … that the film will continue on. But we respectfully understand that the studio is in a very difficult place around the negotiations of the actors and therefore are tentative about how they could move forward.”

After the huge success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that was shot in New Zealand, Jackson has spent the past three years working on adapting the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novel set before the trilogy.

Walsh said the ban placed on the movies by the actors union remains in place, despite New Zealand actors saying it was lifted on Sunday and that Warner Bros. had been advised.

“The boycott has not been lifted. If anyone goes to the Screen Actors’ Guild (of America) web site now they will see we are blacklisted,” Walsh told National Radio. Warner Bros. “are saying they need stability and certainty and that’s no longer here … (and) they can protect their investment better elsewhere.”

Why would Warners “go to a place where they’re almost guaranteed industrial action during the shoot?” she said.

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