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Moving mountains in Middle Earth: Hobbit lands with baggage

On a bright and sunny day in Wellington, a giant billboard moves across the blue sky, flying as low as 300 metres above the ground.

The Boeing 777-300 is emblazoned with images promoting The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three mega-budget Hobbit movie adaptations from blockbuster director Peter Jackson. The 73-metre canvas took six days and 400 hours to apply. The exhibitor of this gargantuan flying advertisement, Air New Zealand, claims it is the largest graphic ever applied to an aircraft.

On the ground below, tens of thousands of fans — some camped out overnight — gather around Embassy Theatre and its long red carpet. A 9.4-metre tall sculpture of Gandalf, which took contractors more than 12 hours to erect, looms like a frozen Greek god above the entrance.

Some have in their pockets commemorative Hobbit-themed coins, which they can use to purchase jewellery and merchandise at the Hobbit Artisan Market. In days leading up to the event some will have sent letters and postcards to friends and family using Hobbit-themed stamps.

Those who have recently landed by plane would have seen a four-minute airline safety video starring elves, dwarves, hobbits and a famous wizard. They would have walked past a 12-metre sculpture of Gollum, which cost some $250,000, and picked up their luggage from “Baggins Services”.

Nearby the Embassy, overlooking Wellington’s harbour, figures of 13 giant dwarves — reportedly the world’s tallest — and one Hobbit cast shadows on the water below. They stand on the fifth story of a 12-floor office building, designed to withstand winds of up to 178 kilometres an hour.

The city, New Zealand’s capital, has been temporarily renamed “The Middle of Middle Earth”.

This is a movie premiere that has, you might say, stopped the nation. Predictably, the international press relished the spectacle from afar. The cost has been colossal, the profits likely to be greater. And the road to get here has been anything but smooth.

The ribbon cutting of The Hobbit #1 signifies a tale of many things: laws and business models circumvented, a federal government bending to the whims of a film crew, a production that spiralled out of control and a director who raised his already titanic profile to levels of power and responsibility befitting a king — and on the way attempted nothing less than changing the way movies are created.

In 2005 Jackson was — to say the least —  in no hurry to work again with New Line, the Warner Bros subsidiary that owns the rights to The Lord of the Rings franchise. After collecting what New Line chairman Bob Shaye claimed to be over US$250 million for his work on the hugely successful trilogy, Jackson filed a law suit accusing New Line of committing fraud in relation to the films’ ancillary markets and of underpaying him to the tune of US$100 million. The case was settled, as was a case from the Tolkien estate in 2008.

All was eventually forgiven, or at least brushed aside. In 2007 it was announced Jackson would return to The Lord of the Rings fray but in a different capacity: he would produce and write two Hobbit movies, with Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro signed on to direct. After two years working on the project, stymied by a seemingly endless series of delays, Del Toro signed off. “After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures,” he said, describing it as “the hardest decision of my life”.

Direction of the films fell back to their grand daddy, as co-financer MGM edged towards bankruptcy but remained unwilling to sell out its stake in the franchise. When the go-ahead was finally given, Jackson couldn’t secure the only Bilbo Baggins he had in mind, British Office star Martin Freeman, because of a scheduling conflict with BBC series Sherlock. Eventually a deal was struck, with a production schedule to accommodate.

When filming was finally officially green-lit, a nasty brouhaha erupted between Jackson and a handful of unions that would mire the trilogy in controversy. New Zealand Actors’ Equity and Australia’s Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance organised protests, proposed boycotts and urged actors not to take on the series without union-backed agreements.

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