Postcard: Wellington

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:57pm

The sign on Wellington's airport terminal says it all: Welcome to Middle Earth.

From the moment in the late 1990s when it was announced The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be made in New Zealand by a local boy made good, filmmaker Peter Jackson, the nation's film industry and film-related tourism took a dramatic step forward.

Its windy capital, Wellington, segued from being literally cool - a beautiful but chilly city of about 200,000 people at the bottom of the world - to figuratively. Now it's "the coolest little capital in the world", according to travel guidebooks publisher Lonely Planet, the kind of place where an international actor in a local cafe - Ian McKellen, James Nesbitt, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen - barely warrants a turn of the head.

The city embraced The Lord of the Rings: riders dressed up as Ringwraiths rode on horseback through Wellington for the Australasian premiere of the first film in that trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; and during a break at a New Zealand-England cricket match there, a chanting crowd, urged on by Jackson, voiced the orcs' chants.

For a time, the visitor's introduction to this Middle Earth Down Under began even before landing - with Air New Zealand's safety announcements being made by a cast wearing hairy Bilbo Baggins feet and pointy ears to match, plus a cameo by Jackson. Upon landing at the airport, one sees oversized Scrabble letters at the Discover New Zealand store that spell out "Welcome to Middle Earth" - next to the Hobbit merchandise - and the bookstore stocks the Moleskine Hobbit journal.

But all this just hints at the significance of Lord of the Rings-engendered movie industry to this city, and the national economy. A Tourism New Zealand survey found six per cent of all visitors the year after the 2003 release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King said the film was a motivation for visiting.

"The following decade, international visitors to Wellington increased by 50 per cent," says Positively Wellington Tourism CEO David Perks.

"International arrivals from last November [when the first Hobbit movie had its world premiere] until now, compared with 2012 for the same period, are up 13 per cent," he reports - and estimates that the first Hobbit premiere alone was worth NZ$11.7 million (HK$75.3 million) to the city.

And so keen is the government to retain this advantage that in October 2010, it made a deal with Warner Brothers to ensure that The Hobbit movies would be made in New Zealand. This followed an industrial dispute over on-set working conditions which had Jackson threatening to shoot elsewhere.

The movie-driven economic boost is national: up in the central section of North Island, the Hobbiton movie set, partly built by the New Zealand Army, converted the small rural town of Matamata (population around 12,000) from a place virtually nobody visited to one receiving 250,000 visitors each year.

But Wellington is at the heart of the burgeoning film sector. At the main tourist information office, brochures offer Middle Earth-related tour opportunities ranging from clambering down a mountainside to see where the hobbits discovered a mushroom feast and where Frodo stood, to checking out a statue of Gandalf in the new piazza outside the fabulously restored Roxy Theatre.

The Roxy is in suburban Miramar, home to the Weta group of companies founded by Jackson and others to produce digital special effects and prosthetics, and offer creative, post-production and other services. Weta Workshop, its conceptual design and creative services arm, employs up to 200 people and has worked on films such as Avatar, District 9 and The Adventures of Tintin.

A mecca for tourists, until recently it offered only the Weta Cave - a shop with a mini museum featuring models from movies, merchandise and continuous DVD screening. But it has now opened a fascinating "Window into Workshop" tour offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of the company plus props and models it has made.

Director Guillermo del Toro described the area as "Hollywood the way God intended it". So while Wellington may not actually be the middle of Middle Earth, don't try convincing the locals.