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The Rise of Wellywood

Wellywood, also known as Wellington, is the film hub and unsung hero of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s economic growth. The capital city has played a major role in developing Aotearoa’s identity as a tourism powerhouse and production paradise. Now, in the time of the pandemic, Wellywood has virtually zero competitors. This competitive edge makes the Kiwi screen industry one of New Zealand’s best shots at a speedy recovery from the impacts of Covid-19.

New Zealand, despite its elusivity, enthralled the globe with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogies. These movies, all of which were filmed entirely in NZ, inspired many loyal Tolkien fans to travel halfway across the world to live vicariously through the sets and backdrops of their favorite films. The influence that these movies had on tourism in New Zealand is suggested by the increase of tourist numbers by 40 percent in the first five years after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. 

These films caused people who previously thought of Aotearoa as an agrarian nation to now perceive it as the “home of Middle-earth.” This revamp in brand image attracted foreigners wanting to experience the uniqueness of NZ. This fit in well with Tourism New Zealand’s (TNZ) mission of offering a “100% Pure New Zealand” experience to attract tourists. A resurgence in interest was anticipated with the release of the first film of The Hobbit trilogy in 2012. Wanting to make the most of this comeback, TNZ redesigned their marketing campaign accordingly. 

Thus, the “100% Pure New Zealand” marketing campaign became “100% Pure Middle-earth.” Surprisingly, this was the first instance of New Zealand’s explicit association to Tolkien’s world as carried out by a crown entity. By shifting their marketing strategy, TNZ attempted to fully take advantage of the international attention received from The Hobbit trilogy and convert it to travel incentives. Former Chief Executive of TNZ Kevin Bowler says that the objective was to show people that “while New Zealand stars as the fantasy world of Middle-earth, what people see in the cinema is actually a real place just waiting to be explored.” 

In promoting an image of New Zealand as Middle-earth, TNZ created an experience for tourists that blends the world of the real and imaginary. Little things such as stamping “Welcome to Middle-earth” on visitor’s passports or giving a weather forecast in Elvish all helped to merge reality with fantasy. Additionally, TNZ expressed the ease of access for tourists to travel to and experience Middle-earth by collaborating with Warner Bros. Pictures to push PR activities, such as hosting high-profile celebrities at set locations. 

The success of this marketing campaign is clearly reflected in the strength of New Zealand’s tourism industry. Tourism has become New Zealand’s largest export industry, contributing 21 percent of foreign exchange earnings prior to Covid-19. TNZ estimates that visitors attracted by The Hobbit alone could be worth $500 million to the economy. Overall, “100% Pure Middle-earth” has elevated New Zealand’s presence in the international community as it has tried to embody the country’s spectacular scenery, friendly people and “100% Pure New Zealand” experience. In 2012, “100% Pure Middle-earth” was even awarded the World’s Leading Destination Marketing Campaign Award.

Becoming “Middle-earth,” however, does have its costs. The government, after recognizing the significant contributions of the screen industry, has drastically increased investment into this sector especially for international productions. It is questionable whether these film incentives actually encourage or “buy” large scale projects. When Warner Bros. considered relocating the production of The Hobbit, the government spent nearly $200 million on subsidizing its production in response. Despite being seen as controversial by the public, economists at ANZ-National backed this decision, arguing that the flow-on effects from the film could generate as much as $1.5 billion for the economy. In hindsight, the government’s faith has paid off: New Zealand has acquired a brand that will continue to generate revenue, so long as these films retain their significance.

Apart from developing the tourism sector, producing the Tolkien films almost entirely in Wellywood has promoted its growth and upskilling. The rise of the Kiwi film industry has proven that Aotearoa has the capital, labor, and location to create blockbuster films, lowering the perceived risk of basing production here. The growing reputation of Weta Digital, a special effects company based in Wellington, has further encouraged production workers to relocate their projects to Wellywood. Since LOTR, more overseas producers have even chosen to produce their projects in Aotearoa. According to the New Zealand Film Commission, over 60 percent of the 468 films made in New Zealand between 1939 and 2012 were produced after the release of LOTR. Working on intense projects such as LOTR has raised the skill level of local producers, and has created new intellectual property, a high-value export that New Zealand can also profit from. Total positions involved in screen production have further increased by 400 percent between 1998 and 2001.

Now that Hollywood and other film hubs have ceased to function because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wellywood stands to gain an upper edge. The government’s quick and hard response against Covid-19 has resulted in New Zealand’s speedy recovery and ability for people to resume work without endangering their health. As a global safe haven, producers are desperate to get inside. Factors such as containing award-winning VFX and post-production companies, strong filming infrastructure, and highly-skilled crew also serve as further incentives. The reasons above are why big names like Avatar director James Cameron “plan to make all [their] future films in New Zealand.” New Zealand borders are still closed to outsiders, meaning that producers will have to plead their case to be granted a border exemption for themselves and their team. 

Bringing in these international productions may demand a huge short-term cost, but will facilitate the sustainable development of Wellywood’s competitive advantage. A massive sum of $230 million has been allocated toward supporting the six international and three local feature films that are currently being produced. New Zealand Film Commission CEO Annabelle Sheehan believes that these subsidies will pay off as it will fill gaps in the industry by “[ramping] up infrastructure.” Also, letting in a miniscule number of foreign workers can stimulate the New Zealand economy. These international projects will employ thousands of Kiwis to support local businesses and provide them with invaluable work experiences. For example, the production of the Power Rangers movie brought only 26 foreign workers into New Zealand, but employed 700 local crew and 2,650 performers. 

Again, the issue of funding large and international film projects in lieu of domestic storytelling is always disputed. The $41 million awarded to the Avatar sequel producers prior to the pandemic has been under much fire. Critics argue that there is a lack of government support in the domestic film industry as this large sum of taxpayer money could have funded eight NZ-based Taika Waititi films. The fact that this money is being spent on subsidizing a film about a fake indigenous culture instead of New Zealand’s underfunded Māori broadcast is also a source of contention. 

The question of representation also plays out in the broader “100% Pure New Zealand” marketing strategy. The idea that NZ is “100% Pure” is as mythical as the “pristineness” it is trying to embody. International advertising schemes like these often hide the darker parts of Kiwi society; for instance, its settler-colonialism. Furthermore, Māori culture must not be substituted by “Middle-earth” for the sake of generating more buzz; in doing so, the government is actively undermining the most fundamental component of Aotearoa’s identity. Critics also point out the role “100% Pure New Zealand” has in endorsing the country’s commercial greenwash. New Zealand should not emphasize fantastical cultures as its national identity to generate profit when the consequence is the erosion of its indigenous culture. 

No one can deny the massive impact that the film industry has had on New Zealand. The remoteness that previously discouraged people from visiting has once again turned into an advantage with the “free advertising” provided by the Tolkein films and others that have followed it. Having acted as a catalyst once for the development of the tourism and screen sector, film production has the potential to uplift New Zealand’s economy. Move over Hollywood, it’s time for Wellywood to shine.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Kathrin & Stefan Marks)