By TONY GEE
Each day, somewhere in the holiday traffic, two men are driving towards a rendezvous in the small Far North township of Kaeo.
They meet in the early afternoon, exchange reels of film then set off again on their separate return journeys.
The man from the tiny settlement of Oruru, with its 72-seat cinema, Swamp Palace, has handed over the first five reels of the hugely successful The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.
In exchange, he's been given Monsters Inc, hot off the projector at Kerikeri's Cathay cinema, 33km away.
Fellowship of the Ring, or just over half of its nine-reel total, makes a further hurried trip southward with Cathay's projectionist-manager, Nigel Smith, in time for its 2 pm screening at Kerikeri.
Meanwhile, Monsters Inc heads north to Oruru, where the lights also go down at 2 pm.
That's about when the last four Rings reels leave Oruru for Kerikeri to complete the Cathay's afternoon session.
The extraordinary juggling act, which has so far gone without a hitch, has been masterminded by Swamp Palace cinema director, manager, projectionist, ticket-seller and sweets dispenser Richard Weatherly, former director of the New Zealand International Film Festival, who is now based in the Far North.
He also has a major hand in the Cathay operation in Kerikeri.
The "three-print movement," as Mr Weatherly describes it, has been running since the first showing of Fellowship of the Ring at both cinemas just hours after screenings began elsewhere in New Zealand before Christmas.
"We were absolutely determined at Oruru that one of the country's smallest cinemas should get Lord of the Rings with everyone else," he said.
"When Kerikeri got the contract, we piggy-backed on them with the distributor's approval, and as long as we didn't interfere with the Kerikeri season."
Sharing prints of films was frequently done by small, country cinemas during the 1940s and 1950s, Mr Weatherly said.
The Far North's print-sharing scheme has allowed Fellowship of the Ring to screen to full houses at 10 am each day since it opened at tiny Swamp Palace.
The cinema is the only one north of Kerikeri in the northern Far North.
Based in the Oruru community hall, inland from the east coast settlements of Taipa, Coopers Beach and Mangonui, Swamp Palace does not take telephone bookings - because there's no phone.
Admission prices to see Fellowship of the Ring reflect the cinema's bucolic location and the area's modest socio-economic status - $5.50 for children, $7.50 for beneficiaries and $9.50 for other adults, unless any out-of-town patrons are foolish enough to admit they're Aucklanders, in which case they may be expected to pay a little more.
Mr Weatherly says the current reels-by-road exchange in Kaeo will continue until the end of the month.
Soon, Harry Potter will be the can and on the move, replacing Monsters Inc in the exchange process when Harry becomes Kerikeri's daytime feature and fills Oruru's night session.
By TONY GEE