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Hobbit-nobbing with the stars in Wellywood

By Pattrick Smellie for CNN
updated 1:03 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
The day has finally arrived. All eyes are on New Zealand's capital, Wellington, as it prepares for the world premiere of Peter Jackson's adaptation of "The Hobbit." The day has finally arrived. All eyes are on New Zealand's capital, Wellington, as it prepares for the world premiere of Peter Jackson's adaptation of "The Hobbit."
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New Zealand's capital to host the premiere of Peter Jackson's adaptation of "The Hobbit"
  • Even Air New Zealand has gotten into the spirit, with a Hobbit-inspired "elf n safety" video
  • Other Hollywood blockbusters filmed there include "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "King Kong"
  • Jackson has warned that the country will have to do more to attract future big productions

Wellington, New Zealand (CNN) -- Perhaps the most nervous people ahead of Wednesday night's world premiere of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" in Wellington will be the weather forecasters.

As the wind whipped through New Zealand's capital city with customary spring ferocity, they would have been praying for more lenient treatment than the average Italian seismologist if their forecast for fine weather on the big day turns out to be wrong.

Wellington is stunning on a beautiful day, but only the brave plan outdoor events, and the red carpet parade of Hobbit stars and crew through the city before the premiere is both a genuine moment of national celebration and a chance to impress the visitors.

Read: Wellywood and World prepare for 'The Hobbit'

International media are here in droves, almost never seen in this far-flung place which, while sometimes dubbed Middle Earth, is really at the end of the Earth.

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Arriving by air, they will already have seen the rather amusing Air New Zealand safety briefing video in which Orcs turn off bony iPads, and Hobbits push luggage under the seat with their furry feet. They may have even flown in on the Boeing-777 decked out in Hobbit livery.

At Wellington airport, they'll have seen the staff wearing jokey "Elfin Safety" vests, and a giant Gollum poised disconcertingly over the snack bars. What they won't have seen as they landed at the hair-raising local aerodrome, set close among suburban houses, is a sign saying "Wellywood."

Watch: Sneak preview of The Hobbit

Too many locals thought that idea was just a bit too craven, notwithstanding the fact that Jackson's stunning success has pumped millions of dollars and a great lump of creative industries into an otherwise remote, government town.

A string of productions including the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "King Kong," "TinTin," "Avatar," and "The Lovely Bones" have built a globally credible film facility in what used to be a quiet corner of town best known for its garden center and some second-hand shops.

People down here are a bit like J.R.R. Tolkien's dwarves, you see; fine when you get to know them, but with noses easily put out of joint. When "Avatar" director James Cameron bought a spread over the hill from Wellington, as many complained about farmland sales to foreigners as thought it might be good for the place.

Jackson himself is known to entertain occasional despair at the small-mindedness of his countryfolk. He remains loyal to the industry he's built here but he's also had to be ruthless about it.

A campaign orchestrated by Hollywood trade unions saw Warner Brothers threaten to take the project to Scotland rather than agree to bind New Zealand actors and crew into the kinds of contracts they're fleeing the United States to avoid.

Stars, fans turn out for 'Hobbit' premiere

In the process, the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, earned a reputation as a huge suck-up to Warners, and political opponents wondered just how much principle was for sale to get a movie made here.

Local media breathlessly pick apart reports on the issue from the New York Times with all the parochial angst you'd expect from a place unused to attracting attention.

Echoes of that bitter campaign have re-emerged to spoil the film's global publicity. There have been late-surfacing claims, hotly denied, of animal cruelty on set and ham-fisted handling by local media seeking to tell more than the fairy story.

The Hobbit has also been used as a political weapon in local political sparring over the country's economic direction. If it's really so pure, the critics fairly ask, how come New Zealand's environmental halo has slipped so badly of late?

Local media breathlessly pick apart reports on the issue from the New York Times with all the parochial angst you'd expect from a place unused to attracting attention and desperate to be well-regarded.

Still, no one ever said a Tolkien plot was subtle.

Meanwhile, in a country where manufacturers and farmers have expected neither tax breaks nor protective tariffs for a generation, New Zealanders seem as placid as Hobbiton burghers about nearly half a billion Kiwi dollars in tax breaks that have secured every production since the Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps with his next trilogy in mind, Jackson was this week warning there would need to be more where that came from if New Zealand is to compete with the many other countries that know blockbuster movies do more for national self-belief than a million widgets ever will.

Still, the gods appear to be smiling on the enterprise.

How else to explain the eruption on cue of the volcano that plays Mount Doom -- a central landscape for Hobbit shenanigans -- mere days before the premiere? Given the Hobbit-mania gripping the country, it's just a wonder that when authorities closed the area to tourists, they didn't put signs saying: "You Shall Not Pass."

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