'Rings' fever grips Wellington

Associated Press

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

New Zealand's capital was gripped Friday by "The Lord of the Rings" fever ahead of the world premiere here next 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.

Nobody takes more pleasure or pride in the success of the films than the inhabitants of this windy city on the southern tip of New Zealand's North Island -- this is where Jackson and the special-effects wizards who drive the films are based.

City officials expect up to 100,000 people -- one quarter of Wellington's population -- to watch a parade of stars and characters at Monday's premiere of "The Return of the King."

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

On the streets of Wellington, locals are no longer surprised by wandering bands of fiendish orcs, hairy-footed hobbits, elves, dwarfs and other creatures in full costume.

The faces of Middle-earth heroes Frodo the hobbit, Aragorn the human, Gandalf the wizard, Arwen the elf princess and others adorn lampposts. An eight-story-high banner covers one side of a building in a portrait of Gandalf, played by Ian McKellen. Special postage stamps have been issued.

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

Mayor Kerry Prendergast said Friday the city had invested $4 million in staging the world premiere -- in the knowledge that the film's high profile and use of spectacular New Zealand scenery will reap far more in tourist dollars this year and next. "I know that it's money well spent," she said.

The movie opens Dec. 17.

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 the glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, forests and jagged mountain peaks of New Zealand.

One newspaper recently pictured visitors huddled under the roots of a tree, wrapped in hobbit cloaks as they reenact 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 houses" -- the only sets remaining at any location of the hundreds that were used by Jackson along the length and breadth of this South Pacific nation.

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

The "overwhelming response" of fans 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 research shows one in 10 foreigners traveling to New Zealand is partly motivated to visit by the chance to tour "Ring" sites.

Tourism chief George Hickton said the movies had provided the country with "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 is set to make $160 million from Middle-earth-related activities over the next 10 years.

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