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Not Just a Tolkien Amount

Times Staff Writer

Among the ruins of Middle-earth, the family of sheep farmer Ian Alexander is astounded by the popularity of its remote rural pastures.

Since the Alexander family allowed director Peter Jackson to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy on its land in 1999, pilgrims have been flocking to the family farm in a bucolic northern corner of this island nation.

There are absolutely no links to modern life on the farm -- no buildings, no power lines, not even any planes flying overhead. All that’s here is a lush carpet of grass that curls around the remains of low-slung hobbit homes built into the hills and ends at a wall of trees as dense and ominous as Fangorn Forest.

The Tolkien fanatics have kept coming with pockets full of cash, desperate for the chance to see the place where the trilogy’s hero, Frodo Baggins, began his daring journey to vanquish the forces of evil by destroying the One Ring.

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And so, in a bid to maintain some control over the situation, the Alexander family decided to set up a tourism company.

“We had no idea that so many, many, many, many people would pay to see it,” said Russell Alexander, Ian’s 35-year-old son, who runs the family’s “Rings Scenic Tours” company.

As impressive as the Alexanders’ sheep farm is, the unforeseen economic boom that followed the filming of Jackson’s trilogy is even more so. Some locals call it the “Frodo economy,” and it has rippled across New Zealand, population 4 million, in many unlikely ways.

Much of the payoff was tied directly to the estimated $500 million that was spent to make the three movies, the third of which will hit theaters in December. For a time, the production engaged 23,000 workers, making it the largest private employer in New Zealand.

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Then came the tourists, and scores of new restaurants and bed and breakfasts to cater to them.

From the majestic fields of Twizel in the heart of the South Island, the site of the “Pelennor Fields,” to the artisan colony of Nelson on the coast of Tasman Bay, where the trilogy’s pivotal One Ring was forged, nearly every small town and cozy hamlet has benefited.

The Frodo economy came calling in earnest on the Alexanders in the form of three young girls from overseas toting backpacks filled with drawings of Bag End, Frodo’s home. They hopped the fences and wandered for hours, finally stumbling across the remains of the movie set deep inside the 1,250-acre farm.

Then there was the tourist who knocked on the Alexanders’ front door and demanded to be taken to the footpaths walked by the mighty wizard Gandalf the Grey.

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He was followed by the impossibly tall German dressed like Frodo in a wool tunic and woven Elvish cloak, who got down on his hands and knees and begged for permission to spend the night under the giant pine tree where Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo Baggins, celebrated his eleventy-first birthday.

Bewildered, the family sat down in the summer of 2002 and considered its options. Buy more guard dogs? Build higher fences?

“There was no question, really,” Russell Alexander said. “We had a constant stream of people popping by, asking to take a quick peek. We had to organize it, and we thought that we’d charge them a little bit to cover the costs of running the tours.”

And, of course, the tours would “keep the bloody people from scaring the animals,” said Wara Warren, a family friend and local rugby club manager who now helps run tours of the Alexander farm.

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When they started in December, they expected to welcome about two dozen tourists a month. Instead, more than 12,000 visitors have discovered the farm over the last 11 months and happily have paid $30 each to visit it. Without buying a single ad, the family’s tiny tourism business has pulled in nearly $350,000 from Tolkien fans -- a sum more than 20 times the average annual income here.

The speed and intensity of the Frodo economy has been outright baffling. More than 200 miles south of the Alexanders, in a rural Southern Wairarapa community so small it doesn’t have a name, the phone never seems to stop ringing inside the 1920s farmhouse belonging to Cheryl and Barry Eldridge.

The couple, who migrated to New Zealand from England nearly three decades ago, wanted a simple farming life. On their 3,000 acres of towering mountains and rolling pastures, the air is thick with earthy scents and the bite of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

They began to raise a tiny flock of black Gotland sheep, whose thick wool pelts feel more like silk. Cheryl, a professional potter, and Barry, a former accountant, use the wool’s natural hues to weave ornate patterns in their shop just outside the capital city of Wellington.

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The couple does everything by hand, from shearing to spinning. After finding a 19th-century manual loom, Barry trained himself as the family weaver.

Among the first patterns the Eldridges developed was a leaf-like design in subtle grays and blacks. It was this fabric that the costume designers for the Tolkien trilogy wanted for hobbit cloaks -- more than 1,000 yards of it.

And so, like the Alexanders, the Eldridges have encountered their share of enthusiasts who would rather inhabit Middle-earth.

“We get e-mails from people now wanting to buy the fabric, but they’re written in Elvish,” said Cheryl Eldridge, referring to the fictitious language created by Tolkien. “We’re not really sure what they’re wanting. We have no idea how they’ve found us in the first place.”

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The Alexander clan feels the same way. Back in 1998, after Jackson got the green light to film the “Rings” trilogy, a crew of location scouts fanned out across New Zealand’s enormous rural areas in search of backdrops.

One scout rented a helicopter to explore the North Island. After several frustrating hours, he spotted an enormous pine tree, perfectly round. From the air, it seemed too massive to be real. Its branches, heavy with needles, swayed gently in the breeze and cast a soft shadow across the azure lake at its base. All around were gently rolling emerald-green hills. And, of course, thousands of sheep.

This is it, the scout thought, hovering hundreds of feet in the air. This is where Peter Jackson will want to shoot Bilbo’s birthday scene.

The helicopter landed and the scout wandered up a path from the farm to the home of Ian Alexander. The scout knocked on the front door.

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Nothing.

Inside, Alexander was watching a crucial All Blacks rugby game on television. Now was clearly not the time for uninvited guests.

The scout knocked again. Grumbling, Alexander answered the door.

“What?”

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The scout asked rather innocently whether Alexander might allow photographs to be taken of the farm, for possible use in a movie.

“Football’s on,” the sheep farmer replied. “Come back later.”

It took nearly six months to hammer out a contract between Alexander, director Jackson and New Line Cinema, the American studio that financed the movies. Then, over a nine-month period, the Alexander farm was transformed into Hobbiton.

Engineers from the New Zealand army built a road to accommodate the bulldozers that were needed to dig deep holes in the hills for the hobbits’ habitat. Water and sewage systems and power generators were set up on a neighboring field.

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Gardeners planted flower and vegetable gardens to make the scene complete. Acres of wheat and corn were nurtured for months so that the stalks would be tall and golden by the time the film crews arrived. Hundreds of crew members descended and the filming lasted four months.

When it was over, members of the local rugby team harvested the corn, said Henry Horne, a family friend who also helps run tours of the Alexander farm. Then New Line sent in teams to destroy the set, till the soil and return it to its sheep farm splendor.

One by one, doors were torn down from hobbit holes. The holes themselves were filled with dirt.

Then heavy rains forced the workers to abandon 18 of the 37 hobbit holes before they could be destroyed. New Line planned to finish the job when the weather improved.

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But the trilogy’s fanatics discovered the Hobbiton set first.

So the family cut a deal with the movie studio, saving the remaining pieces. The tours began and the money started dribbling into Matamata, a town of 6,000 where people are now eating out more and taking previously impossible vacations.

“It doesn’t take a lot of new money to have an impact on towns like these,” said Barrie Osbourne, producer of the “Rings” trilogy. “It trickles down and stays for a long time.”

The Frodo economy extends hundreds of miles to Wellington, where herbalist Margaret Hema carefully mixes batches of lavender facial oil.

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Her line of organic beauty products, which are made from New Zealand herbs and flowers, have become a staple item throughout Hollywood -- all because of a frantic phone call from Liv Tyler.

The actress, who plays the Elven princess Arwen, was in Wellington to work on the films when she when she succumbed to a dermatological emergency. After spending time with Hema and her line of oils, Tyler began visiting the middle-aged facialist on a regular basis.

Tyler referred her co-workers. They told their friends. Curious studio executives bought every bottle of the facial cleansing oil sitting on Hema’s shelves.

Then locals working on the set got wind of the healing power of the oils and clamored for bottles of their own. And they told their friends.

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Hema’s phone rings constantly, even though her number is unlisted and her shop doesn’t have a sign. She has even started getting invites to parties with the Hollywood crowd.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Hema said. “It’s so glamorous and fabulous. I can’t imagine that things will ever change. It will be like this always, won’t it?”

Maybe not. Some fear the Middle-earth boom could quickly bust if it deteriorates into yesterday’s pop-culture fad.

“We’ve been preparing for that since the beginning,” said Cheryl Eldridge, who recently finished a winter line of wool pillows, throws and other products for the Saks Fifth Avenue department store chain. “Nothing lasts forever.”

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For the fans fueling the Frodo economy, the dream can’t end -- at least not yet.

On a recent afternoon at the Alexander farm, young tourist and Tolkien enthusiast Jonathan Rielding stepped inside the modest structure that was Frodo’s home, crouched down and looked out through the empty doorway.

Leaning against the dirt wall, he felt the wire mesh underneath. It’s there to make sure the structure doesn’t slide away. So many of the hobbit holes have already collapsed under the driving New Zealand rain.

For the Alexanders, too, the dream must go on.

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Russell Alexander picks up his phone and, like a studio executive, issues his orders.

The rain is coming. Hobbiton needs more plywood.


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