'Rings' fever grips nation

'Return of King' to premiere in New Zealand

— Giant trolls and serpents swarm over buildings, fearsome warrior orcs prowl the streets, and the childlike face of Frodo Baggins beams down from billboards.

New Zealand's capital is gripped by "Lord of the Rings" fever ahead of the world premiere here this week of "The Return of the King," the final installment of Peter Jackson's blockbuster film trilogy of the J.R.R. Tolkien tales from Middle Earth.

City officials expect up to 100,000 people -- equal to a fourth of Wellington's population -- to watch a parade of movie stars and characters at Monday's premiere of "The Return of the King." The movie opens Dec. 17.

Local pride is bolstered by the fact that virtually all the trilogy was shot in New Zealand -- there is even a local guide book available showing "Rings" fans where key scenes took place.

The faces of "Middle Earth" heroes Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and others adorn city lampposts. An eight-story high banner covers one side of a building in a portrait of Gandalf, played by Sir Ian McKellen. Special postage stamps have even been issued for the occasion.

"Welcome to Wellington, home of 'Lord of the Rings,'" employees at City Hall say as they answer the phone.

Mayor Kerry Prendergast said Friday the city had invested about $4 million in staging the world premiere, hoping that the film's high profile and use of spectacular New Zealand scenery would reap far more in tourist dollars this year and next.

"I know that it's money well-spent," she said.

In recent weeks, and since the first movie appeared two years ago, thousands of tourists have sought out places where the movies were filmed -- among New Zealand's glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, forests and mountain peaks.

One newspaper recently pictured visitors huddled under the roots of a tree, wrapped in Hobbit cloaks as they re-enacted a famous scene from the first film.

Others wander the green and bucolic fields of "Hobbiton," the place where the first movie opens, peering into "Hobbit holes" -- the only sets remaining at any location of the hundreds used along the length and breadth of this South Pacific nation.

The biggest private fan party in the capital on tonight will see 700 people, half of them foreigners, party in "Lord of the Rings" costumes.

Fans' "overwhelming response" forced organizers to double the size of the event, said organizer Erica Challis.

"People just saw this as a chance of a lifetime to celebrate as 'Lord of the Rings' fans," she said.

Tourism New Zealand research shows 10 percent of foreigners traveling to New Zealand are at least partly motivated by the chance to tour sites from the films.

Tourism chief George Hickton said the movies gave the country "an unparalleled opportunity to raise its profile," reaching an estimated 90 million viewers and readers worldwide.

What has become known as the "Frodo economy," named after the movie's main Hobbit character, is pouring tens of millions of dollars a year into New Zealand.

A report for Wellington's regional economic development agency said the capital alone was set to make $160 million from Middle Earth-related activities in the next 10 years.

Actor Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, said Friday that staging the premiere of the third movie in Wellington was "returning a favor" to the city where it was made.

Many of the young stars of the film lived here for months, spent time in local bars and surfed off the beaches.


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