Hobbit fever hits climax at big event


Nowhere - and I mean, nowhere - does a movie premiere quite like Wellington.

I have been lucky enough to be at virtually all the red carpets the city has rolled out in honour of its favourite son, Sir Peter Jackson, and his films.

The last big one was for King Kong in 2005 and I had forgotten just how mind-blowing they are. Here I am, seven years on, at the world premiere of The Hobbit.

This is about much more than just a film. Jackson's films and the industry he has created around them have transformed Wellington and changed the way New Zealand is perceived by the rest of the world.

Come premiere time, the entire city is gripped by Hobbit fever. From the 13-metre-tall Gollum at the airport to the 10-metre Gandalf towering outside the Embassy Theatre, it seems no one has escaped the charm of Middle Earth.

The Hobbit production attracted more than its fair share of controversy and criticism, but all that was forgotten as more than 100,000 people lined the streets of Courtenay Place to cheer on Sir Peter and his cast.

Some of the most dedicated Tolkien fans had camped out overnight to secure prime position on the 500-metre-long red carpet.

Every available vantage point had been taken, bars and businesses had their balconies full, people were hanging from trees and lamp posts.

Sir Peter arrived on the carpet just after 4pm and spent almost two hours signing autographs and taking pictures. His example was followed by stars from the film, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, Huge Weaving and Andy Serkis. "This is a beautiful country but people need to be able to see it," actor James Nesbitt said. "Jackson has opened windows on the place he is proud of."

In 2003, Return of the King had its world premiere in Wellington. That event injected more than $9.5million into the local economy. There's hope The Hobbit may be even more lucrative. Three films in a Hobbit trilogy are expected to generate more than $2billion for New Zealand.

One of the real joys of a Wellington premiere is how close the fans, and the media, are able to get to the stars. By the time they get to us, at the far end of the carpet, they are all looking a little weary, but their enthusiasm isn't dampened.

"I never thought I would see a premiere like this again," Sir Peter said. "It is amazing how the city supports us and our films. We are a country that punches above our weight and not just in film."

The atmosphere is electric, enthusiastic Wellingtonians standing with fans from around the world - for many, this is the trip of a lifetime.

The international media are blown away by this premiere experience. For many of them it is their first visit to New Zealand. They have come from as near as Australia and as far as China and Germany. They will return home to tell stories not just about The Hobbit but about New Zealand as a destination.

Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit have provided a marketing opportunity money just can't buy.

Tourism New Zealand is riding high on the pick-up of the "New Zealand as Middle Earth" campaign and Air New Zealand has rebranded some of its planes and its safety video, to reflect our national obsession with all things Tolkien.

Every time I have the pleasure of talking to Sir Peter or any of his team I am reminded of how lucky we are to call them our own. They are hugely creative, passionate, dedicated and modest.

Oh, and by the way, I was in one of the first audiences in the world to see The Hobbit, at the theatre at Sir Peter's post-production facility, Park Road Post.

I'd love to tell you all about it but my lips are contractually obliged to be sealed for another week.

But what I can say is, it's been worth the wait. Well worth it.


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