New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on Tuesday failed to secure a guarantee from Hollywood executives that Peter Jackson’s troubled “Hobbit” movies would be filmed in the country.
After crisis talks with senior Warner Bros. executives that lasted more than two hours, Key said the fate of Jackson’s $500 million epic remained in limbo.
He said the meeting was “constructive” but the studio chiefs remained unsettled by an industrial dispute between Jackson and actors’ unions over the project, a two-film prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“It’s fair to say there was a lot of goodwill towards New Zealand … but there’s no question the industrial action has caused real concern on their side, and they’ll need resolution to some of those issues,” Key told reporters.
Hollywood’s heavy hitters, including the head of Warner’s New Line production house Toby Emmerich, flew to Wellington to examine whether New Zealand’s bid to reprise its role as Middle Earth was economically viable.
They offered no comment as they left Key’s official residence Premier House.
New Zealand’s rugged scenery was a key element in “The Lord of the Rings,” helping boost tourism and build the local film industry into a three billion dollar (US $2.3 billion) a year success story.
But the location for “The Hobbit” has been in doubt since the actors’ union NZ Equity last month called for a global boycott after Jackson rejected demands to negotiate with it on minimum conditions for its members.
While the ban was called off last week, Key said it had forced the studio to look at whether other locations were more economically attractive.
Key rated New Zealand’s chances of keeping the project, which is due to begin shooting in February, as “50–50” and said he expected a final decision in the next two days as talks continued.
He said government legal advisers would work overnight on possible changes to industrial laws to reassure the studio that “The Hobbit” could meet production deadlines without the threat of union action.
But he reiterated his stance that New Zealand would not be drawn into a bidding war for the movies, reportedly the most expensive film project ever undertaken.
“We can’t bridge the gap with what’s potentially on offer from other locations, we’re not prepared to do that and I don’t think the New Zealand taxpayers would want us to do that,” he said.
Key earlier said the government’s existing 15 percent tax rebate on major films was worth 60–80 million New Zealand dollars (45–60 million US) to “The Hobbit.” However, some competitors are offering almost double the incentive.
Producers have mentioned Scotland, Canada, Ireland, Australia and eastern Europe as possible alternative locations, along with the Leavesden Studios near London, where the “Harry Potter” movies were filmed.
Thousands of people, including film technicians and actors, staged rallies in New Zealand’s main cities on Monday calling for the movies to stay.
In a letter read to the Wellington rally, Jackson made it clear he wanted “The Hobbit” filmed in New Zealand, although the industrial unrest meant the final decision was now out of his hands.
“This is where Middle Earth was born and this is where it should stay,” he said.