When Amazon announced in August 2021 that its billion-dollar “Lord of the Rings” TV series would shift production to England, fans were stunned. Though J.R.R. Tolkien was British and though the settings are fictional, New Zealand and Middle-earth have become synonymous.
That’s all due to native son Peter Jackson, whose “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” premiered in December, 2001.
On Aug. 31, 1998, before filming on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy began, Variety reported that Jackson was convinced “New Zealand is particularly suitable for re-creating Middle-earth. The landscape and the raw beauty of these places is ideal for this story.”
The three films used 150 locations by the time principal photography wrapped.
Jackson’s instincts had a profound effect. Other filmmakers have won Oscars and earned billions at the box office. But has anyone else had such a huge effect on their country’s economy?
New Zealand was once seen as a small, remote country. But in the past 20 years, it has became a world player. “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” says a rep at Tourism New Zealand, “have been invaluable in raising New Zealand’s international profile, brand and reputation.”
According to the New Zealand Film Commission, the screen industry in 2018 was worth NZ$3.2 billion ($2.16 billion) to the country. Though COVID has affected everything, filming this year is expected to generate $608 million.
David Strong, the Film Commission’s CEO, says before “Lord of the Rings,” New Zealand made independent and arthouse films that often received worldwide acclaim, such as Jane Campion’s 1993 Oscar winner, “The Piano.”
“Peter Jackson,” says Strong, “brought into New Zealand the largest films in the world, through the Hollywood system and the commercial side of filmmaking, which are entirely different kinds of films. Thanks to Peter’s vision and courage, New Zealanders realized they could make films on a grand scale.”
Strong cites four factors for the two-decade-long filming boom: The country’s scenery, a 20-25% rebate, its leading-edge technology and its resourceful crews.
Much of that can be traced back to Jackson. He is not responsible for creating the scenery, but he and partner Fran Walsh were instrumental in getting to country to offer tax breaks, up to 20%, to increase production beyond their own films.
They also created five companies in Wellington to facilitate production. At the beginning, those companies trained workers; now they attract them from other countries.
“Weta Digital is a good example,” says Strong. “The company now employs 2,000 visual effects people. It’s one of biggest effects companies in world; a lot of that comes from Peter Jackson helping to set it up.”
The “LOTR” films, adds Strong, and international productions have energized the technology sector.
As for the crews, Strong says, “A film set feels like a village. When international people come here, they often comment how easy it is to make films, because of the caliber of the crew and the can-do attitude. They just get things done.”
The demand from international productions to locate in New Zealand has increased every year. While blockbusters are a 21st century phenomenon in New Zealand, small-scale filmmakers are treated with equal respect. NZFC helps filmmakers create eight to 10 movies a year (and also makes health and safety top priorities).
The TV side is also prolific, thanks to the government’s NZ$100 million investment annually.
The Film Commission “would have liked Amazon to stay,” says Strong, but since its exit, NZFC receives frequent inquiries asking: “Is there more studio space since Amazon left?” Strong adds, “The pipeline for international productions coming here is looking good.”
While Jackson’s effect on the entertainment industry is huge, he’s also had a profound effect on tourism.
Variety in 2014 reported that international arrivals to Wellington had jumped 87% in the 12 years following the first “Lord of the Rings.”
Tourism New Zealand also reports that 18% of holiday visitors in 2019 said the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies got them interested in the country; 33% of all visitors went to a film location. (“Lord of the Rings” tours are plentiful and popular there.) That segment of travelers represents NZ$630 million to the economy for 2019 alone.
Though COVID has slowed down tourism, it will undoubtedly pick up again.
One of the key attractions is Hobbiton, a re-creation of the Shire on New Zealand’s North Island that opened in 2002. Since 2012, the Hobbiton Movie Set experienced year-to-year growth annually, including 650,000 visitors in 2019, the most recent pre-COVID year.
To Jackson and his team, New Zealand was much more than a great location. As he told Variety in 2014, “I have people on ‘Hobbit’ who worked on (his 1989 film) ‘Feebles’; it becomes a family thing.”
In October 2000, as he was about to wrap principal photography on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson summed up his determination to stay in New Zealand by telling Variety, “Why would I leave the Shire to go and live in Mordor?”
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