New Zealand Travel Guide

Here’s How New Zealand’s ‘Hobbit Law’ Is Impacting The Country

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The popular movie franchise has changed laws in New Zealand.

When you think of New Zealand, a few things come immediately to mind: sheep, volcanoes, Flight of The Conchords, and “not Australian” hastily scrawled on the back of your hand in Sharpie. But the biggest one, of course, is Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film franchise that helped to put the small island nation on the map as an ideal place to film movies due to its absurdly pretty natural environment. (Volcanoes! They’ve just got volcanoes hanging out, and you can see the volcanoes from atop an unrelated mountain and go “Oh no, I’d have to walk through the background from Windows XP to get to the volcano, and who has time for that, I guess I’ll just go hang out in a magic forest and gaze longingly upon the fjords.”)

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During the filming of the Hobbit trilogy in 2010, the government of New Zealand became embroiled in a Reservoir Dogs-style standoff with Warner Bros. Studio when the film company demanded that New Zealand’s labor laws toe the line or risk having the Hobbit movies filmed elsewhere (thus depriving lots of people of lots of jobs). In particular, the kerfuffle was centered around whether actors (and film crews in general) are considered independent contractors or full employees, and whether film workers on contract have the right to unionize. All of this is a complicated way of saying “a trilogy of movies that are basically Tolkien fanfic as told through video game cutscenes are the reason that the government of a sovereign nation codified anti-union policies into law.”

Since you’re reading this article, you’ve got three guesses about whether the Hobbit Law is still in place, and the first two don’t count.

The Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill, commonly referred to as “The Hobbit Law” (and tragically not referred to by anybody as The Bilbo of Rights) was a particular bone of contention for the Labour government that came into power in 2017, which resolved to ax the polarizing legislation. In particular, the legislation modified the language of a previous ruling, Bryson v Three Foot Six Ltd, to rearrange the goalposts so that the definition of “employee” legally excludes anybody working in the film industry, specifically, classifying them instead as independent contractors. As independent contractors, film workers are unable to unionize and aren’t afforded the same protections or benefits as regular employees.

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Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway commented, “We’re looking to restore a lot of workers’ rights that have been diminished over the last nine years, and that is a priority for us. It’s something that we want to have the legislation at least introduced within the first 100 days of government.”

Since you’re reading this article, you’ve got three guesses about whether the Hobbit Law is still in place, and the first two don’t count.

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The Hobbit Law has become an object of fresh public interest. The upcoming TV series based on Lord of the Rings, which at about $1 billion is slated to be the most expensive TV series of all time, has renewed the debate surrounding the legislation and, more largely, the nature of independent contractors’ rights within unconventional fields (for example, fields filled with thousands of screaming orcs). Amazon Studios, the company producing the upcoming series, is keeping talks with New Zealand government officials under wraps, but David Parker, Economic Development Minister, confirmed that he’s had meetings with Amazon Studios executives in order to discuss the future of the series. Without receiving the millions of dollars in tax subsidies that New Zealand gave to Warner Bros. Studios in 2010, Amazon might just decide that actually, Middle Earth looks more like Scotland, and film industry employees look more like enthusiastic hired guns who scoff at worker protections, and the population of New Zealand looks like 4.75 million jilted Ren Faire dates.

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It’s a mixed bag—New Zealand has become an attractive location for international productions, which is good because Yay More Money for New Zealand’s Film Industry, but it’s an attractive location due in part to lax worker protections and less government oversight—the cumulative effect of this is a cycle of revenue and exploitation that there doesn’t seem to be any easy answers for, especially as the process for addressing it in New Zealand is being kept quiet.

Dr. Trisha Dunleavy, associate professor of media studies at Wellington’s Victoria University, is optimistic that Amazon will keep the production in New Zealand due to the country’s robust Tolkien-centric tourism industry and the natural association people will always have between the fantasy series and New Zealand.

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“There’ll also be a certain amount of argy-bargy [arguing] about where the production ends up being headquartered. My feeling is they would probably use a number of locations [around New Zealand],” she said to Stuff Entertainment. (Unrelatedly, “argy-bargy” is the single greatest combination of words I’ve ever seen, and I can’t stop using it to describe every conflict in my life.)

There are rumblings from shady, unknown sources (who I am absolutely picturing as Aragorn during that scene in the Prancing Pony where he’s lurking in the corner like an anonymous ghoul and oh god I’m way more invested in this series than I thought) that Amazon might film the new TV series in Scotland.

Until a resolution has been reached between Amazon and government officials, James Cameron’s Avatar sequels, which he’s been threatening to make in retaliation for nobody being able to name a single character or line from the highest-grossing film of all time, are providing a healthy boost to Wellington’s film industry for a healthy chunk of 2019, but that won’t last forever. There are rumblings from shady, unknown sources (who I am absolutely picturing as Aragorn during that scene in the Prancing Pony where he’s lurking in the corner like an anonymous ghoul and oh god I’m way more invested in this series than I thought) that Amazon might film the new TV series in Scotland, claiming that “when Amazon people scouted locations, they didn’t make themselves known, acted as tourists and connected straight away with local communities.” It’s unclear at this point if this is just Amazon Studios attempting to make New Zealand jealous by flirting with other countries, or if serious inroads have been made to establish Scotland as the shooting location, but the New Zealand Film Commission has refused to comment on whether or not meetings with Amazon have yielded positive results.

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Wherever it ends up being filmed, Peter Jackson apparently won’t have anything to do with the TV adaptation of his golden goose. “I wish them all the best and if we can help them we certainly will try. It’s a big task,” he said of the production, presumably with a full shooting script for parts 1-5 of The Silmarillion behind his back and a diabolical twinkle in his eye.