From Middlemarch to Middle-earth

By Debbie Porteous

Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Photo / Supplied
Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Photo / Supplied

The Otago town of Middlemarch, population 432, may be about to go on its own unexpected journey.

Locals are confident the Strath Taieri's relatively little known scenic charm is about to be exposed to a massive international audience in the much anticipated The Hobbit movies.

A film unit was in the area for two weeks last year and it is hoped scenes from the area will feature as a backdrop to the journey of Bilbo Baggins and friends.

Shots of the area and references to it from director Sir Peter Jackson are included in several of the film's production clips.

Sir Peter describes the skies in the area as "incredible... Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind skies".

Hills around Middlemarch also feature in a scene in a new trailer for the films released last week.

While Tourism Dunedin would wait and see the extent to which the area figured in the final edit of the films, Middlemarch did not want to miss any opportunity to take advantage of what they hoped would be one long Hobbit party, Middlemarch Promotions Group chairwoman Lynnore Templeton said.

Even the mere fact filming was done in the area was something the group could work with, she said.

"We need to capitalise on that."

Being associated with the films would bring "huge" advantages for Middlemarch, the Otago Central Rail Trail and the wider Dunedin area, in terms of visitors to the area and associated activities, she said.

The group would work on making the most of the films, but the hardest thing so far was to get funding to do anything substantial, she said.

"We are just a few people in a small place."

The group planned to hold a "Hobbit Day" in Middlemarch about the time of the launch of the first film The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey, which premieres in Wellington in late November.

Plays on the similarity between the name Middlemarch and the setting for the films - Middle-earth - would "absolutely" be part of any plans.

Everybody in Middlemarch was very excited about the movies, Mrs Templeton said, and the town felt it had a personal link.

"We all had people stay with us when they were filming. It was really nice, actually. The whole town really came alive for two weeks."

Dunedin City Council Mosgiel Taieri ward representative Cr Kate Wilson, of Middlemarch, said she was keen to see the area benefit from its links to the films.

"Not to be mean to us, but our scenery is probably not some of the more iconic in New Zealand. However, it is stunning and now everyone will know it too."

Tourism New Zealand has said it anticipated any region or business with a connection to the locations of The Hobbit trilogy was likely to see an increase in visitors seeking a Middle-earth experience.

Tourism Dunedin chief executive Hamish Saxton said it would initially take advantage of Tourism New Zealand's investment in promoting New Zealand as Middle-earth, and the predicted increase in visitor numbers to New Zealand following the release of the films.

Initially, it was likely Dunedin would host visiting media and hopefully benefit from information produced by Tourism NZ on national journeys, which would include Otago.

"It is very difficult to understand or second guess what the impact will be until we see the movies. Therefore, in the meantime, the very best we can do is highlight and promote the broader South Island to travellers."

Global interest in the films was fantastic for the whole country - and was marketing and promotion a local marketing budget could not buy, he said.

- Otago Daily Times

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