PM caves in over Hobbit film
Wellington - New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was accused of giving in to Hollywood moguls on Thursday as parliament rushed through special legislation to keep The Hobbit movies in the country.
Key agreed to change New Zealand's industrial laws and pay sweeteners worth tens of millions of dollars to prevent Warner Bros film studio moving Peter Jackson's latest Tolkien saga elsewhere.
Jackson said he was thrilled at the result but trade unions claim Key had surrendered New Zealand's sovereignty to the studio behind the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons.
"A foreign corporation can come into this country and demand that workers' rights in this industry be removed... That's effectively what's going to happen," Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly told TVNZ.
Under the deal, struck on Wednesday after two days of tense negotiations between Key and visiting Warner executives, New Zealand will pass legislation designed to ensure The Hobbit is not threatened by industrial action.
The law will confirm film workers are independent contractors, rather than employees of the firm producing the movies, which would have entitled them to benefits such as holiday pay and sick leave.
Mickey Mouse state
The opposition Labour Party said Key, who had vowed not to be drawn into a bidding war for the movies, had been "screwed" by hard-bargaining movie executives.
"It opens us up to anyone who wants to shake us down," Labour's industrial relations spokesperson Trevor Mallard said, adding the deal made New Zealand "look like a very Mickey Mouse state".
While the Labour Party and Greens oppose the legislation, the government and its coalition partners have the numbers to pass it later on Thursday.
"The New Zealand parliament, brought to you by Warner Bros," Greens co-leader Russell Normal said during debate on the bill.
Jackson, who had complained union "bully boys" were threatening his project, welcomed the change.
"This clarification will provide much needed stability and reassurance for film workers as well as investors from within New Zealand and overseas," he said in a statement.
The New Zealand Herald said Warner held a gun to Key's head by threatening to move the films but he had made the right decision to keep the $500m US production in New Zealand.
"What kind of country, however, sells its democratic soul for 30 pieces of silver?" it said.
"The answer is a small one. And one where the economy shows little sign of recovery in the short term."
The two-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings is scheduled to begin shooting in 3D next February, with British actor Martin Freeman from The Office in the lead role of Bilbo Baggins.
The country's rugged scenery was a key element in The Lord of the Rings, boosting tourism as the trilogy's critical and commercial success kick started a local movie industry worth $2.3bn a year.
The dispute divided New Zealand's filmmaking community, with some saying the actors' union NZ Equity was simply trying to guarantee minimum standards for its members and others accusing it of unfairly targeting Jackson.
Thousands of people marched in rallies around the country on Monday calling for the movies to stay in New Zealand.