The filmmaker's intervention in the Wellington mayoral race, part of an effort to block a housing plan, was unheard-of in a country where money and fame are usually wielded lightly.
Peter Jackson, the film director behind the Lord of the Rings series, is a towering figure in his native New Zealand, admired as both a down-to-earth titan of the box office and a one-man income generator for the country's moviemaking and tourism industries.
But Jackson now finds himself at the centre of a debate over how he has exerted that influence. This week, he helped catapult to victory a mayoral candidate who shared his opposition to a proposed development project near his studios, an unheard-of local political intervention in a country where money, fame and power are most often wielded lightly.
Jackson had been embroiled for months in a fight with Justin Lester, the first-term mayor of Wellington, over plans to build houses on a rugged peninsula in the city's harbour. His opponent, Andy Foster, who had polled only in the single digits in previous mayor's races, beat Lester by 503 votes Saturday after receiving Jackson's political and financial backing.
Local government elections in New Zealand are usually sleepy affairs, with low voter turnout, small budgets and an absence of celebrity glamour. But the result in Jackson's home city led to accusations that money had tilted the field.
• Money isn't everything: Sir Peter Jackson and Wellington's mayoralty
• Sir Peter Jackson-backed candidate wins Wellington mayoralty
• Sir Peter Jackson calls to congratulate new Wellington mayor
• Weta Digital asked staff to support Peter Jackson's mayoral candidate Andy Foster
"It's unfortunate in New Zealand that an election can be bought," said Lester, who spent about $20,000 on his campaign, compared with Foster's $56,000 — $36,000 of which came from donations, including Jackson's. The share of the total linked to Jackson was believed to be large, though the exact amount was unclear.
Lester said he had been willing to listen to Jackson's views on the housing development — the director's objections had been interpreted by many as an effort to keep high-density housing out of his part of town — but no more than he would to anyone else's.
"Just because someone has more money or influence doesn't mean they should have a greater say," Lester said.
Jackson called the election a victory against shadowy forces pushing the housing plan. In a statement emailed by his company, WingNut Films, he said that he, "along with the thousands of Wellingtonians" who voted Foster and other candidates into office, "shared their aims of bringing greater transparency and accountability to local government."
Sir Peter Jackson calls to congratulate new Wellington mayor
Too close to call: Wellington candidate backed by Peter Jackson has narrow lead
Although Jackson may have broken new political ground in the mayor's race, it was not the first time he has exercised his power with the country's politicians.
In March, The New Zealand Herald reported that Jackson had called a meeting with Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, after he heard that she was considering cutting government subsidies for the film industry.
Although officials had said that the subsidies did not provide value for the money to taxpayers, Ardern's centre-left government ultimately decided to leave them untouched. The government said the move was not related to Jackson.
In 2010, he was at the heart of a dispute in which Warner Bros. threatened to move production of his Hobbit films away from New Zealand unless the government supported changes to employment laws. The fight pitted Jackson against the actors' unions, which said the changes would revoke performers' rights.
The centre-right government at the time sided with Warner Bros. and Jackson.
Jackson, a soft-spoken man with a relaxed appearance — he is known to go barefoot, like the hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien's books — has won three Academy Awards, and his films have grossed more than $3 billion. His movies set in New Zealand are credited with luring visitors to see the country's natural beauty for themselves, a boon that tourism officials said was worth tens of millions of dollars a year.
"Peter is a very, very big fish in quite a small tank," a former prime minister, John Key, told The New York Times in 2012.
Jackson has accumulated particular clout in Wellington, where he has invested in philanthropic projects and hosted world premieres of his films. A filmmaking empire has sprung up in his wealthy suburb of Miramar, where the production and special effects companies he founded are based — and where Foster's billboards were prominent before the election.
"People do talk about it as a company town," said Bryce Edwards, a veteran political commentator and lecturer at Victoria University in Wellington. "The business has a lot of control over the infrastructure and how the town operates."
Filmmakers, Edwards added, "have become the strongest lobbyists in New Zealand. They have immense power."
Wellington, like much of New Zealand, is in the grip of a housing shortage and increasing the supply was a central point of Lester's agenda.
But Jackson so strongly opposed the planned housing development that he took to his Facebook page — which has more than 2 million fans — to criticise the project, including on one occasion in a post of nearly 5,000 words. Workers from Jackson's companies also attended Foster's campaign launch. Edwards said the attention Jackson had generated for Foster — a center-right politician in a liberal city — "carried a lot more weight" than any donation.
Foster, like Jackson, did not respond to requests for an interview. But Foster told The Herald that he would recuse himself from any council votes on matters in which Jackson had a financial interest. That did not include the contested housing project, he said.
He said he hoped to reignite discussion on the council about a proposed movie museum and convention center for Wellington — a project of Jackson's that was shelved in 2018.
Lester, the ousted incumbent, said the new mayor would have to deal with Jackson's expectations.
"Their outcomes might be aligned, but it won't make it easier for him; it'll make it more difficult," he said of his rival. "It's for Andy to determine how he'll handle that."
Written by: Charlotte Graham-McLay
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES