Hobbits, superheroes put magic in NZ film industry

Associated Press Modified: November 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm •  Published: November 25, 2012
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"New Zealand has a good reputation for delivering films on time and under budget, and Jackson has been superb at that," says John Yeabsley, a senior fellow at New Zealand's Institute of Economic Research. "Nobody has the same record or the magic ability to bring home the bacon as Sir Peter."

"You cannot overestimate the fact that Peter is a brand," says Graeme Mason, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. "He's built this incredible reputational position, which has a snowball effect."

Back in 2010, however, a labor dispute erupted before filming began on "The Hobbit." Unions said they would boycott the movie if the actors didn't get to collectively negotiate. Jackson and others warned that New Zealand could lose the films to Europe. Warner Bros. executives flew to New Zealand and held a high-stakes meeting with Prime Minister John Key, whose government changed labor laws overnight to clarify that movie workers were exempt from being treated as regular employees.

Helen Kelly, president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, says a compromise could easily have been reached. She says the law changes amounted to unnecessary union-busting and a "gross breach" of employment laws.

"I was very disappointed at Peter Jackson for lobbying for that," she says, "and I was furious at the government for doing it."

Weta Digital's general manager Tom Greally compared it to the construction industry, where multiple contractors and mobile workers do specific projects and then move on.

Animal rights activists said last week they plan to picket the premiere of "The Hobbit" after wranglers alleged that three horses and up to two dozen other animals died in unsafe conditions at a farm where animals were boarded for the movies. Jackson's spokesman Matt Dravitzki acknowledged two horses died preventable deaths at the farm but said the production company worked quickly to improve animal housing and safety. He rejected claims any animals were mistreated or abused.

Jackson's team pointed out that 55 percent of animal images in "The Hobbit" were computer generated at Weta. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have asked Jackson in the future to create all his animals in the studio.

Controversies aside, the rise of Weta and the expat American community in and around Miramar is visible in everything from a Mexican restaurant to yoga classes. On Halloween, which in the past was not much celebrated in New Zealand, hundreds of costumed children roamed about collecting candy. Americans gave the tradition a boost here, but the locals have embraced it.

The National Business Review newspaper estimates Jackson's personal fortune to be about $400 million, which could rise considerably if "The Hobbit" franchise succeeds. Public records show Jackson has partial ownership stakes in 21 private companies, most connected with his film empire. He's spent some of his money on philanthropy, helping save a historic church and a performance theater.

For all his influence, Jackson maintains a hobbit-like existence himself, preferring a quiet home life outside of work. In the end, many say, he seems to be driven by what has interested him from the start: telling great stories on the big screen.

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Follow Nick Perry on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nickgbperry