New Line, Warner Bros and MGM raised the possibility last night [27] that they may take production on the two upcoming Hobbit features away from New Zealand unless an escalating confrontation with regional unions is resolved.

The studios sounded the warning in a statement that addressed a furious ping-pong game of allegations over the weekend concering actors’ rights that had referred to the prospect of the shoot moving to Eastern Europe.

Peter Jackson, who will direct and produce both Hobbit films, responded angrily over the weekend after the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) sent out a member alert urging actors to boycott what they termed a ‘non-union’ production.

SAG is keen to ensure the film-makers guarantee minimum labour conditions, echoing concerns voiced by Australia’s influential Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) that actors may be treated unfairly.

Jackson said he always ensured that actors received miminum working conditions, adding that the MEAA was playing politics and using the situation to dent New Zealand’s reputation as a renowned and growing production hub.

Last night the three studios issued a statement in which they concluded: “Motion picture production requires the certainty that a production can reasonably proceed without disruption and it is our general policy to avoid filming in locations where there is potential for work force uncertainty or other forms of instability. As such, we are exploring all alternative options in order to protect our business interests.”

The statement started out by expressing concern over “recent allegations of unfair treatment of actors in New Zealand and instructions from the performers’ guilds to their membership to withhold services from the producers of The Hobbit in New Zealand.”

In this case, it argued, “the allegations are baseless and unfair to Peter Jackson and his team in Wellington who have been tireless supporters of the New Zealand motion picture community.”

The statement continued: “To classify the production as ‘non-union’ is inaccurate. The cast and crew are being engaged under collective bargaining agreements where applicable and we are mindful of the rights of those individuals pursuant to those agreements. And while we have previously worked with MEAA, an Australian union now seeking to represent actors in New Zealand, the fact remains that there cannot be any collective bargaining with MEAA on this New Zealand production, for to do so would expose the production to liability and sanctions under New Zealand law.

“This legal prohibition has been explained to MEAA. We are disappointed that MEAA has nonetheless continued to pursue this course of action.”