Now booking: trips to Middle Earth

New Zealand, where 'The Lord of the Rings' was shot, is counting on the film for an economic boost.

Anticipation is running high for the Dec. 19 release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," but perhaps nowhere higher than in New Zealand.

Municipal leaders in the capital, Wellington, are mulling a temporary name change to Middle Earth, setting of author J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy trilogy. The township of Matamata plans to rename itself Hobbiton, after the home village of Frodo Baggins, the diminutive central character. And last month, the government created the post of "Lord of the Rings" Minister, to capitalize on - and increase - the economic and creative bounty sparked by the movie and its two planned sequels.

Behind all the playfulness runs a serious strain. New Zealand is embracing the film, made almost entirely in this remote, South Pacific country and directed by native son Peter Jackson, as nothing less than a means of economic salvation.

The billion-dollar tourism industry, one of New Zealand's greatest strengths, has become one of its greatest liabilities since Sept. 11. Americans constitute the country's largest international market. Official figures released last month show that stateside arrivals in October fell by about 20 percent from the same time last year, with a similar drop-off from Japan, the second-largest Northern Hemisphere market.

Last month, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a $1.9 million effort to promote New Zealand, timed to the "Rings" première. As Rings minister, Peter Hodgson, former foreign-trade negotiator, says he expects to spend next year leading "a sustained effort to promote New Zealand talent and innovation to the world."

Plans include promotional videos and websites dealing with the New Zealand movie industry, stands at film-trade markets, and a coming exhibition in Los Angeles of "Rings" models and props.

Other opportunities abound. Outside Wellington, a city surrounded by hills, there is an old disused quarry where actor Elijah Wood, who plays the intrepid Frodo, battled orcs and trolls for months with his "Fellowship" companions. Canterbury, another location site, embodies the phrase "ends of the earth." Windswept, with more than 300 named peaks, it calls to mind the fifth or sixth day of Creation.

New Zealand is "fortunate down here to have both the computer technology and the natural landscape to bring the unique world of Middle Earth to life," Mr. Jackson says of his film, adding that "it has taken 45 years for filmmaking technology to finally catch up with Tolkien's imagination."

New Zealand has provided its share of dazzling locations for screens large and small - from the gothic beachfronts and forests of 1993's Academy Award-winning "The Piano," to the campy 1995-2001 TV series "Xena," to Jackson's own 1994 work, "Heavenly Creatures."

Still, the New Zealand Screen Producers and Directors Association predicts that national revenues associated with the film industry could top $420 million this year, as they did last year, in a country of just 3.9 million inhabitants and where no real "film industry" properly existed before the advent of Jackson and his special-effects team.

Last year, more than 7,000 new jobs were created in the local film industry, most of them related to "The Lord of the Rings."

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