How a movie changed New Zealand forever
When The Fellowship of the Ring premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on December 10, 2001, hundreds of millions of copies of JRR Tolkien’s early to mid-20th century fantasies set in Middle-earth had already circulated.
The film became a blockbuster hit, grossing $ 880 million ($ 1.23 billion). And as audiences enjoyed Kiwi director Peter Jackson’s visual recreation of Tolkien’s world, book sales exploded again. But alongside the stars of film and publishing, another also rose: it was New Zealand, the place disguised as Middle-earth.
Until then, most of the world might not have been able to locate New Zealand on a map, let alone consider visiting it.
Yet in the five years since that premiere, the number of tourists to New Zealand has increased by 40% and tourism has become the country’s second-largest industry behind dairy, with a New Zealand tourism official calling The Lord of the Rings “the best free publicity New Zealand has ever had”.
Middle-earth wasn’t the only engine, of course. In the pre-pandemic 21st century, travelers have become more adventurous, spread their wings more. “Off the beaten track” has become the mantra of many and New Zealand’s unspoiled landscapes and healthy image have grown in popularity.
But even so, 20 years and five other Middle-earth films (two more the Lord of the Rings films, three Hobbit feature films) later, nearly one in five visitors (just before COVID) still cited The Lord of the Rings as a reason they became interested in New Zealand as a vacation destination.
The impact on New Zealand tourism was unanticipated, let alone planned. And those who perhaps least expected it were those who were involved in making the films.
Co-founded by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, Weta Workshop (wetanz.com) is the Oscar-winning company that makes physical special effects such as creatures, costumes and sets that have contributed immensely to the epic look and feel. the credibility of the films. Richard Taylor remembers the first time people started showing up at the outfit’s headquarters in Miramar, a suburb of Wellington.
“From the moment the movies came out, we started bringing in buses of people who were pulling up in front of our workshop and I was waving to them through the window,” says Taylor. “If I had a moment, I would get off and get on the bus, give them a talk or just chat with them and tell them what we were doing and who we were, etc. But it became painfully obvious that we actually had to remove a finger and do something rewarding for the people who came. “
Thirteen years ago, they opened “a very small retail outlet in the back corner of our workshop to sell collectibles,” he says. And from there came the Weta Cave, an experimental exhibit of creatures, settings, and audiovisual resources, and then the larger Weta Cave Experience to meet increased demand and larger groups.
“I personally did a lot of the construction of Weta Cave,” says Taylor, who now counts regular visitors among his friends. Some even stay with him and his wife, Tania Rodger, at home.
“There’s this weird misconception that fans have to be people you don’t necessarily want to engage with. That’s not the case because we’re fans ourselves,” he says.
It’s this incredibly Kiwi way – the friendliness, the welcome, the hands-on approach – that has helped the films make a transcendent emotional connection, inspiring flight bookings and itinerary planning from fans everywhere. .
Taylor says that if the concentration of diverse landscapes “from pastoral Hobbiton to the horrors of Mordor” was one thing, this national character was quite another. “These weren’t films made by a single director, by a producer, by a studio, by a crew. It was a collection of films made by a nation of people, bringing their energy and effort behind every effort on. those movies. You can feel it in the movies. That’s a big part of why I think these specific movies could be done so well here. “
Russell Alexander owns and operates Hobbiton (hobbitontours.com), the 5.5 acre farm turned into a botanical movie set, which portrayed The Hobbit-inhabited County of Tolkien throughout the films. Before COVID hit, it was attracting 650,000 people a year.
Like Taylor, he credits the longevity of the Matamata site – it’s been over seven years since the last Hobbit movie was released and it still makes visitors cry – to its New Zealand character. And avoiding the American theme park model also helped.
“They make great parks and I went there to learn things like how to deal with visitors. But if you try to copy them you’ll set a really bad example,” he says. “So what you are doing is being authentic to yourself. The experience that we provide is authentic, incorporating rural New Zealand and the best of landscapes and scenery and everything, movies and whatnot. is involved in the making of a great movie. “
Alexander says that rather than providing a Hobbit version of Disneyland with recreations and actors disguised as characters, the key to Hobbiton’s success is its “storytelling” approach, taking people behind the scenes.
Unsurprisingly, avowed Tolkien fan Richard Taylor also loves Hobbiton.
“I’m a huge, passionate Hobbiton fan and love going there myself. To me, that’s everything Disney would have wanted Disneyland to be if it didn’t have to deal with a huge number of people. There is a kind of land of beauty and health that you just can’t make when you’re leading millions of people through one place and it feels so genuine and real, literally like you’ve been thrown in. another world. the most magical places you could hope to visit on the planet. “
What about New Zealand’s enduring appeal?
“Once you step into the country, you interact with a nation of people who have a different perspective on the world than maybe any other country. It’s probably because we’re a small island nation. . But we are very passionate and patriotic individuals who take pride in sharing what we have here with others. “
FIVE SITES OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS YOU CAN VISIT
TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK
New Zealand’s first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spectacular and volcanic Tongariro on the North Island near Lake Taupo was chosen to represent Mordor, home of the Black Lord Sauron. It is an important Maori cultural site.
In the Southern Alps of the South Island of New Zealand, it is on Mount Sunday, at a distance, that Edoras, the capital of Rohan, was created. It’s about an hour and a half south of Christchurch.
KAITOKE REGIONAL PARK
With the murmuring streams and light filtering through the canopy, it’s easy to think that you spot elves in Kaitoke Regional Park, a 50-minute drive north of downtown Wellington. It became Rivendell, where Frodo is recovering from a knife attack. The exact location is indicated from the parking lot.
The town of Nelson on the South Island is home to Jens Hansen The Ring Maker, the fine jewelry company that created the 40 different rings used in the production. One of the original rings is on display here and the company continues to manufacture the Lord of the Rings-inspired pieces. See jenshansen.com
The area around Queenstown includes several locations such as the northwest slopes of Mount Earnslaw, which were featured in the opening sequence of The two towers. From the village of Glenorchy you can reach the forest which also served as Lothlorien’s elven kingdom.