Why Middle Earth is so precious for New Zealand

Why Middle Earth is so precious for New Zealand

New Zealand is once again going hobbit-wild, thanks to the new Peter Jackson epic, which opens in the United States tonight. A 13-meter Gollum statue greets visitors in the Wellington airport, and the country’s mint has issued commemorative coins featuring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as Gandalf. The country’s tourism slogan was changed from "100 percent pure New Zealand" to “100 percent Middle Earth”. More dramatically, New Zealand’s capital officially changed its name from Wellington to "the Middle of Middle Earth" for three weeks last month and spent nearly $1 million on hobbitses-related festivities including a parade and free public screenings throughout the city. 

Internationally successful films have long been a great way to get your country on the international cultural map. Exodus gave American audiences of 1960 not just a Jewish Paul Newman but a heroic vision of the founding of Israel. The 1972 cult classic The Harder They Come introduced the world to Jamaican music and Rastafarian culture, making an international star of Jimmy Cliff and paving the way for Bob Marley.

But New Zealand’s embrace of the Lord of the Rings movies is still pretty unique, particularly given that the movies don’t take place in that country — but in a mythical world of orcs and elves. It’s not hard to understand why. The Tolkein movies have been a major cash cow (cash crebain?) for the country. 

First, there’s been the impact on the country’s film industry. Before Jackson set up shire there, New Zealand was known in the film world mainly for high-quality but depressing indie films like The Piano and Once Were Warriors and as the filming location for schlocky TV shows like Xena: Warrior Princess. Now, the secret of New Zealand is out. The combination of its dramatic and diverse landscape ("Every element of Middle Earth is contained in New Zealand," says Elijah "Frodo" Wood. "There are so many different geographical landscapes: mountains, woods, marshes, desert areas, rolling hills … and the sea." ) and skilled local film workers have made it the location of choice for fantasy and historical films including the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Samurai, and Jackson’s own King Kong remake. A 2002 report comissioned by the New Zealand government estimated that the original triology contributed about $298 million dollars to the country’s film industry.

Then there’s the impact on tourism, which you can get an idea of just from googling "New Zealand Lord of the Rings tour".  The original trilogy essentially functioned as a 9-hour travel advertisement for the country and it shouldn’t be a surprise that tourism hit record levels in the years after the films came out. Including tourism, the total economic impact of the original films on the country has been estimated at more than $590 million.

But Ring-fever has waned a bit since then, so it’s understandable that New Zealanders are thrilled about the new film, which will be the first in a trilogy, naturally. The expected windfall of the new Hobbit movies has been estimated at $1.5 billion, which is about 1 percent of the country’s GDP. 

I suspect that figure may be a bit optimistic, but it does put Wellington’s festivities in context. New Zealand authorities are willing to do nearly anything to keep the hobbits happy. That included ramming through ammendments to the country’s labor laws in 2010 after Jackson threatened to move production somewhere cheaper and angry New Zealanders took to the streets of the shire to protest.

"Making the two Hobbit movies here will not only safeguard work for thousands of New Zealanders, but it will also follow the success of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy in once again promoting New Zealand on the world stage," Prime Minister John Key said at the time. (They also threw in a generous tax break to Warner Brothers.)

Other countries may be looking to follow the Kiwis’ lead. Northern Ireland has been preserving Game of Thrones filming locations with Westeros-themed bus tours are planned. Thee HBO fantasy series has provided a nice change of pace for a local film industry best known internationally for grim Troubles-era dramas.  

Belfast should beware though. Wellington’s legal accommodations to Jackson to keep Middle Earth in New Zealand show that, like any non-renewable resource, a country can get hooked on swords and sorcery.