- Associated Press
Monday, October 25, 2010

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - The prime minister sought to keep filming of “The Hobbit” movies in New Zealand by holding a crisis meeting with studio executives Tuesday, but said the country would not be drawn into a bidding war.

Plans to make the $500-million, two-movie project in New Zealand fell into disarray last week when the film-makers made it known they were considering moving production because of a pay dispute with the local actors union.

The union says it called off its boycott of the production last week, but director Peter Jackson said the studios were not confident there won’t be more trouble during the production. Executives from Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema flew to New Zealand this week for meetings before making a final decision.

The dispute has become a national issue in New Zealand. Hundreds of people marched in several centers on Monday to support the movies being made in the country.

“The Lord of the Rings” films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels relied heavily on the rugged landscape of New Zealand, which in turn received a tourism boost after becoming associated with Tolkien’s Middle Earth fantasy world inhabited by hairy-footed little people and host of other colorful beings. The three-film production also kick-started an international film industry in New Zealand.

“The Hobbit” is Tolkien’s prequel to the story of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Prime Minister John Key was due to meet the executives Tuesday, and said beforehand he thought there was an even chance the two-movie project would stay in New Zealand. But he cautioned that he would not be offering more tax breaks to ensure that was the case.

“I’ve made it quite clear that if it comes to a bidding war New Zealand is out. I don’t think that’s the right way to run this,” Key told TV One program.

Key said it was a good sign that the studios had sent “a fairly heavy duty team” to New Zealand for the talks.

“If they were just coming to say ‘no’ then they wouldn’t bother actually to send such a senior team,” Key said.

The industrial dispute began last month when Actors Equity arranged an international boycott of the movies when Jackson refused to hold talks on a union-negotiated agreement on wages and conditions for local actors.

The U.S.-based Screen Actors Guild and British actors joined a worldwide work blacklist of “The Hobbit.” But last week New Zealand Actors’ Equity called off their boycotts and pledged there would be no industrial action during the films’ production.

Key said he believed the studios did not trust the union.

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