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Triumphant return for movie king Jackson
By David Fickling
December 2, 2003
Guardian Unlimited
Nearly 100,000 people turned out on the streets of New Zealand's capital, Wellington, yesterday for the premiere of Return of the King, the final instalment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has been credited with putting the country on the film-making map.

The director, Peter Jackson, who was born in New Zealand, was feted like the monarch of the film's title. He was greeted with a ticker-tape parade and honoured by the prime minister, Helen Clark, for his contribution to the country.

Sporting a JRR Tolkien-style chainmail jacket designed for the occasion, Ms Clark compared New Zealand to Tolkien's fictional Middle Earth.

"These movies have done so much for our country. We are Middle Earth," she told Jackson. "Lord of the Rings the movie has done New Zealand very proud, and we are very proud of you."

About one in every 160 New Zealanders was involved in the making of the films, and the crowd in central Wellington yesterday was the equivalent of a quarter of the city's population.

The $2.9bn (£1.6bn) worldwide box office takings of the first two Rings films have made Jackson a Hollywood player and a national hero.

Wellington was transformed yesterday for the biggest entertainment event in New Zealand's history.

Figures from the films were set up on the steps of parliament and on the roof of the Embassy cinema where the premiere took place. Clothing shops took to using orc masks as mannequin heads. The post office issued a commemorative set of stamps.

A celebratory motorcade wound its way through the streets between banners advertising the film, and the red carpet was rolled out for the trilogy's stars, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler, and Viggo Mortensen. Absent from the premiere was Christopher Lee, who stars as the evil wizard Saruman. He fell out with Jackson over the removal of most of his scenes from the final cut of Return of the King.

An Air New Zealand jumbo jet was cleared to fly low over Wellington harbour early in the afternoon, its fuselage painted with scenes from the film and the company's current slogan, "Airline to Middle Earth".

Jackson's determination to shoot and produce the trilogy in New Zealand has endeared him to a patriotic public used to seeing local talent, such as The Piano's director, Jane Campion, and Once Were Warriors director, Lee Tamahori, go overseas when they hit the big time.

Local investment from the trilogy has seen Wellington dubbed Wellywood and the Wellington suburb of Miramar, where Jackson's studios are, nicknamed Jacksonville. Stars spent up to 18 months in the country shooting all three films back-to-back, and the project has taken nearly seven years from conception to completion.

There was anger when the premiere of the first film in the trilogy was held in London, but all seemed to have been forgiven on the streets of Wellington yesterday.

Hannah Barton, 21, a student from Christchurch on South Island, made costumes for herself and three friends. "It's just a great thing for the country," she said.

Her friend Kate Williman, 22, from Dunedin, South Island, was more phlegmatic. "New Zealand likes to make a big thing of itself," she said. "It's been fantastic, but the importance of the movie can be overstated."

It remains to be seen how much of an impact the trilogy has on New Zealand's vulnerable economy. The promised tourism boom has not fully materialised, and other than the Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai, big-budget Hollywood films have so far resisted the attraction of the landscapes showcased in Jackson's trilogy.

Joanna Canbie, 29, a nurse from Taranaki on North Island, said the country should be wary of over-marketing itself: "If you make too much of it, you risk turning New Zealand into Disneyland. If people come only to see locations for the film they will miss the natural beauty of the place."

There has also been criticism after it was revealed that the films benefited from a tax loophole estimated to have cost local taxpayers NZ$400m (£149m). A leaked government report earlier this year said that it was "unclear whether any substantive profits will be returned to New Zealand" from the trilogy.

The bigger disappointment for local fans will be the 17-day wait for the film's public release later this month.

Jackson had not seen the film from beginning to end until yesterday and journalists invited to showings last week have been sworn to secrecy.

New Zealanders will not be the first to see the film on December 18. The east coast of the US may be 17 hours behind Wellington, but American film buffs will pip New Zealanders to the post because it is being released in the US a day early.
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