Written by Allie Schratz, Editor of Business Review Australia
From The Piano to King Kong, and The Last Samurai to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, directors, critics and audiences alike have been treated to sweeping shots of the fantasyland we know as New Zealand. Though well-acclaimed and enjoyed by millions, none of these films have had quite as large of an impact on the nation’s tourism figures than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The first film adaption of J.R.R Tolkien’s worldwide bestselling trilogy introduced much of the world to the lush greenery and snowy peaks of this two-island nation. Now, more than a decade later, the precursor to Frodo Baggins’ adventure – that of his uncle, Bilbo Baggins – will take audiences back to these landscapes in another trilogy beginning with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Based on Tolkien’s earlier novel, the film will hit the silver screen for its worldwide premiere on 28 November in Wellington. Judging from the sneak peeks, such as the 12-minute excerpt enjoyed by thousands of fans at San Diego’s Comic-Con International convention in July, anticipation for The Hobbit’s first instalment is mounting rapidly.
The Kiwi director is no stranger to blockbuster film series. The Lord of the Rings trilogy ruled the cinemas in the early 2000s with each film grossing upwards of $800 million worldwide. The third instalment, the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is ranked sixth on the “Top 100 All Time Box Office Worldwide Grosses” list, while its predecessors still hold spots in the Top 30 to this day.
Mr Jackson’s trilogy adaption, filmed entirely in his home country, is widely credited with putting New Zealand on many travellers’ destination radars. With its landscape shots of Tongariro National Park (the location of Mount Doom and Mordor), Mount Gunn and the Franz Josef Glacier (the White Mountains between Gondor and Rohan) and the Putangirua Pinnacles (where the Fellowship meets the Army of the Dead) found just outside the City of Wellington, viewers have been treated to a spectacular tour of the two-island nation.
This visual exposure has been invaluable to New Zealand’s tourism industry. According to a survey conducted by Tourism New Zealand after Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King debuted in 2004, 85 per cent of visitors said they were aware that the trilogy had been shot in-country. A full one per cent of travellers disclosed that the sole purpose of their trip was to visit the film sites from the three movies, and this single percentage contributed upwards of 33 million in tourism dollars to the national GDP.
Therefore, when the tourism organisation sat down to strategise their tourism efforts in connection with The Hobbit’s release, they wanted to capitalise on New Zealand’s newfound fame in a different way.
“One of the lessons we learned about the last movies [was that] they really showed off New Zealand’s stunningly beautiful landscape,” said Gregg Anderson, Tourism Australia’s General Manager who handles strategies in North American and Europe. “However, if you look at our classic problem as a destination, everyone knows about the landscape. The issue is, what can you do when you take a holiday to New Zealand?”
The country’s association with Tolkien’s novels provided a challenge within itself, as one of the major hurdles the tourism body had to overcome with the Lord of the Rings trilogy was increasing visitors’ accessibility to ‘Middle Earth.’
"Many moviegoers would probably consider the landscapes of ‘Middle-Earth' to be a fantasy, only made possible thanks to the talents of filmmakers. Not so,” said Tourism New Zealand's Chief Executive Kevin Bowler. “Our aim is to take advantage of that global profile by showing how easily the fantasy of The Hobbit movies can become reality in the form of a New Zealand holiday.”
Launching a campaign titled “100% Middle-Earth, 100% New Zealand,” the tourism organisation has teamed up with Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, MGM and Mr Jackson’s company, Wingnut Films, to target an international market referred to as ‘active considerers’: those who list New Zealand as a top five destination they’d like to visit within the next two to three years. The aim of the tourism campaign is to broaden the perspectives of these active tourists; to think, “you can watch this stunning landscape on the big screen, but it’s just around the corner to visit,” said Mr Anderson.
Similar to the many organised Lord of the Rings tours offered around the country, fans may experience film locations from The Hobbit, such as a guided tour of the Hobbiton set. Located on the Alexander Farm near Matamata on the North Island, the set has been rebuilt from the prior trilogy and will be preserved for those who want to visit.
“The [Lord of the Rings] trilogy was very much about helping build the awareness of New Zealand. This is absolutely helping us garnish that attention that movies will bring and use it to our advantage,” said Mr Anderson. “We want to highlight New Zealand as a great place to visit, a great place to do business, [and] a great place for film production.”