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As the world prepares for ‘The Hobbit,’ New Zealand prepares for the world
The most anticipated film so far this century is turning Wellington into a pseudo Middle-earth as Hobbit tourism reaches fever pitch
It has been nearly a decade since Middle-earth last hit the big screens. This week it returns as the backdrop to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins et al, in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
It evokes not only a huge sigh of anticipatory relief from Tolkien fans around the world, but also kicks off a boom in “Hobbit tourism” to Wellington, which has been renamed “The Middle of Middle-earth” for the three weeks around the premiere (November 28).
So what can the masses of fans who will descend on the capital expect to find?
Following “LOTR: The Return of the King” in 2003, 63,200 visitors participated in Lord of the Rings activities (namely location tours). Since then an average of 47,000 visitors have visited film locations each year.
The Hobbit trilogy is going to see those numbers ramped up, with the New Zealand government fostering a strong relationship with Warner Bros.
Warner Brothers is spending NZ$100 million (US$81.5 million) in marketing "The Hobbit," NZ$12 million of which is being offset by the New Zealand government. As part of the deal, tourism ads will appear in the front of DVD and theater screenings.
Tourism New Zealand recently launched its new campaign “100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand,” which was allotted NZ$10 million of the department’s NZ$65 million annual marketing budget.
“Since the launch of our ‘100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand’ campaign, our research has showed that 79 percent of potential travelers who have seen it say it increases their desire to come here,” says Catherine Bates, Tourism New Zealand’s general manager.
“Two-thirds say they have a better opinion of New Zealand as a holiday destination having seen the advertisement.”
More on CNN: Wellington to be renamed for Hobbit premiere
See, do and buy Middle-earth
From the release of “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001, Lord of the Rings-themed movie location tours have sprung up in Wellington, Rotorua and Matamata, Queenstown and Glenorchy (numerous film locations), Christchurch (Rohan) and Tongariro National Park (Mordor).
Film locations around Wellington include Kaitoke Park (Rivendell), Mount Victoria (Hobbits escaping The Shire) and Harcourt Park (The Gardens of Isengard) among many others.
New Zealand’s movie-making industry, affectionately known as “Wellywood,” is located on Miramar peninsula. It houses a collection of closely associated companies, including Weta Workshop (props and physical effects) and Weta Digital (computer animation and other digital effects), Stone Street Studios and Park Road Post Production.
While the studios are inconspicuous, they are not hidden, and during production it’s possible to catch occasional glimpses of filming on outdoor sets, sets under construction, or actors coming in and out of the studios.
For the film’s premiere, Wellington has been temporarily renamed “The Middle of Middle-earth.”
Banners with a custom logo are prominently displayed around the city, along with characters from the film. Hotels around Courtenay Place are already nearly full for the occasion and the nightlife zone is much livelier than usual.
David Perks, chief executive of Positively Wellington Tourism, is excited about the city’s premiere offerings.
“Wellington is a city that loves dressing up for major events and is certainly donning its glad rags for the world premiere of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,’” he says.
“As well as the installations that have been revealed at Wellington Airport, NZ Post and Embassy Theatre, the city is decked out in celebratory street flags, hosting the Hobbit Artisan Market and i-SITE Visitor Centre staff will be fittingly dressed from this Friday (23 November).”
“Local businesses are getting involved there and through a window dressing competition, with entries going up from Wednesday (November 21).
“We know a number of restaurants and hotels are also preparing hearty Middle of Middle-earth menus and specially themed cocktails.
“Warner Bros has been extremely welcoming and accommodating, providing bunting, posters and t-shirts for the window dressing competition, along with a blockbuster prize of two tickets to the world premiere for the winning business.”
New Zealand Post has issued a set of official Hobbit stamps commemorating the event featuring Bilbo, Gollum, Elrond, Radagast the Wizard, Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf.
A series of Hobbit coins has also been issued as legal New Zealand tender.
From Saturday, November 24, through the premiere on Wednesday, November 28, Wellington will host The Hobbit Artisan Market, showcasing 30 artists who worked on the films.
Market crafts include everything from glassblowing and leatherwork to make-up and prosthetics. There will also be contests, Hobbit-themed food, and wares for sale from the Weta Cave. The market will run from noon to 6 p.m. daily.
Sunday through Tuesday, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., the three films from The Lord of the Rings will be shown in the park on a large screen for free.
A number of notable guests from the films are expected to make appearances.
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The Hobbit world premiere
The world premiere spectacle is expected to run from 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on November 28, with a red carpet spanning 500 meters along Courtenay Place, from the Reading Cinema to Embassy Theatre. Both theaters will screen the film for VIPs.
Sir Peter Jackson and collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens will join cast members walking the red carpet to greet fans and sign autographs, beginning at 4:30 p.m.
Performers and a show are expected on the carpet, although the details are top-secret. Notably missing from the carpet will be Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf).
The first public showing of “The Hobbit” will be at midnight on the evening of December 12, screening across New Zealand.
The future of Middle-earth tourism
New Zealand’s Middle-earth tourism will continue well into the future.
“Our marketing approach aims to show potential travelers that the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand,” says Catherine Bates.
“There is a whole world of experiences to be had and people to meet within the movie-scene style landscapes.”
She adds that this “will continue for the foreseeable future across key markets; adopting a heavier Middle-earth tone around key events such as the movie and DVD releases.”
With a whole trilogy of movies to be released through 2014, additional filming planned, new movie locations to open as tourist destinations and national treasures like Sir Peter and Weta’s Sir Richard Taylor to stoke New Zealand’s creativity, New Zealand film tourism appears to be guaranteed.
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Filming ‘The Hobbit’
JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit is set approximately 60 years prior to The Lord of The Rings and tell the story of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, his 13 dwarf companions and Gandalf the Grey as they seek to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor from the loathsome dragon, Smaug.
Originally planned as two films, toward the end of principal filming it was announced that The Hobbit would be split in three as: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (December 12, 2012), "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (December 13, 2013) and "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" (July 18, 2014).
Directed once again by New Zealand native Sir Peter, the trilogy has been filmed (although a few scenes yet remain for filming) exclusively in New Zealand, just like "The Lord of the Rings."
The new films break ground in both audio and video. Not only were they shot digitally in 3D, but "The Hobbit" is also the first major motion picture to be shot at 48 frames-per-second, which is double the normal frame rate; allowing for greater clarity and image depth. The film is the second to be mixed in Dolby’s cutting-edge new Atmos sound format.
Everyone in New Zealand seems to know someone who worked in the films. The two trilogies have been such a massive effort that craftspeople and extras were recruited from throughout the country.
Although cast and crew sign confidentiality agreements, few can contain their excitement about working on "The Hobbit," nor their admiration for the films’ director, Sir Peter.
“[Sir Peter] treated all of us extras, and the animals on set, all very well,” said an extra from The Hobbit’s Lake-town set. “[He] was very kind; he gave us all respect alike, whether the we were stars, or extras and crew, or even the animals. And I’ve never eaten so well in all my life!”
More on CNN: Air New Zealand's genius 'Hobbit' safety video
10 Things to know about New Zealand
1. Kiwis are small, round and hairy, and tend to be nocturnal. They are also a bird or a fruit by the same name. All three are good-natured.
2. Sheep farming is in decline but the roast lamb and wool are still exceptional. Stansborough sells the woolen cloaks it produces for the movies.
3. Driving is on the wrong, er, left-hand side of the road.
4. Banknotes are made of plastic.
5. Internet is generally very slow and expensive, but Wellington provides free Wi-Fi along the waterfront.
6. New Zealand bus drivers are incredibly friendly and helpful.
7. New Zealand DVDs play in Australia, Oceania and most countries directly south of the United States.
8. New Zealand uses three-pronged electric plugs just like Australia, Argentina and Papua New Guinea.
9. New Zealand makes fantastic wine, beer (“Sobering Thought” and “Golden Perch” for Hobbits), Manuka honey (a veritable natural cure-all) dairy products (try Mammoth Supply Co. yogurt for men) and RJ’s licorice.
10. Citizens of more than 50 countries, including the United States, can visit New Zealand without a visa.
Editor’s Note: Follow Adam Bray at @fisheggtree as he tweets live from the red carpet at "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" world premiere on November 28 in Wellington, New Zealand, and other events throughout the week.